North Korea: A nuclear tragedy which plays out as comedy

As South Park's creators noted, there is something so funny about this country's rulers it can mask the monstrosity of their regime. We might die laughing


Inappropriate Mirth Syndrome is a pernicious condition. If you happen to be immune to it, please accept that there is nothing remotely funny about being driven from the funeral of a much-loved grandmother by an inexplicable giggling fit. On the face of it, nor is there anything wildly amusing about the news that North Korea has conducted another underground test of a nuclear device, in pursuance of its stated ambition to develop the capacity to strike the American mainland. Yet somehow, shaming as it is, the instinct is to laugh.

With the work of crazy tyrants, a time-honoured formula holds that “comedy = tragedy + time”. It took the passage of centuries before Caligula became a punchline, while the cable channel sitcom Heil Honey I’m Home!, in which the Führer moves in next door to a Jewish family, lasted just the one episode in 1990, and would never be commissioned today.

The exception to this rule is North Korea. There is something so inherently funny about its rulers (the South Park team chose Kim Jong-il as lead jester in Team America: World Police) that it somehow masks the monstrosity of this tragically benighted country. How is anyone supposed to take these crazies seriously, you wonder, and nothing short of a mushroom cloud over Wyoming seems capable of providing the answer.

Ha ha boom

The ruling family’s knack of mingling the unwittingly hilarious with the attemptedly petrifying, hugely to the detriment of the latter, was on display this week. Shortly before Kim Jong-un gave the order to detonate the nuke, a statue of his late father, Kim Jong-il, was unveiled in the capital for a second time. In its first manifestation, this handsome bronze featured the Dear Leader in jacket and tie, and a long overcoat. The remodelled version, intended to present him as more avuncular and man of the people-ish, has him in an anorak. Head raised, beatific grin on face, he now resembles Harry Secombe belting out Bread of Heaven on Highway. Meanwhile, his belly has been made even more capacious, as if to taunt from beyond the grave a population beset by hunger.

The perpetual semi-famine has also nimbly side-stepped his successor. The “Young Leader” is a ringer for PSY, the chubby rapper from the other side of the 39th parallel, and it is tempting to imagine him aping almost every other world leader by performing his version of the ultra-viral dance craze. Backed by an army well known for maintaining a lock-step formation, Kim Jong-un’s Pyongyang Style would be something to behold, although it would be unlikely to be uploaded on to YouTube.

If North Korea is the ultimate distant country of which we know little, the same goes for its new supreme leader. We do know that the young fella finds himself in charge of the asylum at 29, coming by the post after his eldest brother lost the inheritance over an ill-judged jaunt, on a false passport, to visit the Tokyo Disneyland. That lent a suitably Mickey Mouse flavour to the succession battles of the Tudor court. We know, from the evidence of his father’s chef, one Kenji Fujimoto, that he smokes Yves St Laurent cigarettes and likes a drop of Johnnie Walker. “He is exactly like his father,” the cook declared by way of underlining his fitness for the top job. “He is a big drinker and never admits defeat.” And isn’t that the combo to soothe frayed nerves about his future oversight of the nuclear codes?


We also know that he was not a bright or industrious student in Switzerland, and that any finishing school he attended there would regard this nuclear proliferation as the height of poor form. It may be that the Chinese government feels the same, and will take a more aggressive line in reining in its troublesome neighbour. Clearly, this is a serious test for Hu Jintao – a new and exceedingly young leader himself at 59, which by traditional gerontocratic standards makes him 15 – as he juggles the need to improve relations with the US with China’s fraternal warmth towards Pyongyang.

As Beijing considers its response, world leaders line up to demand sanctions. If these have to some extent worked with Iran, the two cases are hardly comparable. Where Iran has an economy to devastate, a form of democracy to manipulate, and an entirely rational leadership (discounting Ahmadinejad’s pantomime ravings), North Korea has none of these things. What precisely would you stop giving the country that has nothing? How would worsening the privations of his populace affect the girth and sensibilities of a Young Leader described, by the only witness to give a character reading, as every inch his father’s son?

Meanwhile, as the geopolitical community scratches its head at the conundrum, the Inappropriate Mirth Syndrome kicks in at this vision of an overgrown adolescent – possibly the hostage of internal forces, possibly his own man –  threatening to destabilise a combustible region by playing the most dangerous game known to humanity. I suppose we might eventually die laughing. But it doesn’t feel that way, and that is Pyongyang’s gift to us all... the genius for translating what ought to be terrifying into a zany comedic art form, and so lulling the planet, if not its leaders, into regarding the nuclear brinkmanship as a joke. Maybe there is some method to the madness after all.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Archbishop Welby has admitted to having doubts about the existence of God  

So the Archbishop of Canterbury has doubts about the existence of God. Good on him for admitting it.

Louise Scodie
A member of the 'Taiji Dolphin Action Group' curls up on a sheet depicting the Japanese flag, during a protest against the killing of dolphins  

Japan must put an end to the brutal slaughter and torture of its dolphins

Mimi Bekhechi
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week