North Korea: If we’re laughing, it’s laughter in the dark

The difficulty is in taking this rogue state seriously when our instinct is simply to laugh

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Was this our first real hint of the  imminence of the Third World War? A sign tacked to a tree in a quiet street in the residential London suburb of Ealing? The sign said simply, “Loading” and warned residents not to park outside a house. The space was reserved, it turned out, for a removals lorry that arrived on Tuesday, loaded several boxes and departed. It wasn’t a dramatic occurrence. But given that the house belongs to Mr Hyon Hak Bong, North Korean ambassador to the Court of St James’s, the removal was of huge and alarming significance.

Is this it? Is this the start of hostilities? Has the ambassador been recalled to Pyongyang in advance of the outbreak of war? Are diplomats from capitals all over Europe being called home to keep them safe from fallout, political or literal? Is an attack imminent?

It’s an odd business, waiting for a war to start – reading the signs, sifting the evidence, listening to what politicians are really saying, discounting reassurances. And when North Korea is involved, it’s all about interpretation.    

Last week, David Cameron warned that the North’s arsenal of BM25 missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads 1500 miles, had grown beyond a dozen. He said, “I think it’s a good moment to stand back and ask ourselves about the dangers there are in the world, and the need to maintain strong defences.” This is code for: “There’s a batso teenage egomaniac with his finger on the button, and anything could happen now.”  The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said the tensions between North and South were “very dangerous,” adding that “any small incident caused by miscalculation or misjudgement” might “create an uncontrollable situation.” This is code for: “There’s a batso teenage egomaniac with his finger on the button, and anything could happen now.”

The North’s tactic of pushing things towards confrontation while never explaining why has been joined by the tactic of ordering civilians about in an inscrutably threatening manner. On Monday they announced the temporary closure of the Kaesong industrial plant, which is in the North but is run by South Korean companies and employs 53,000 North Korean worker – a rare example of cross-border co-operation.  No workers showed up after the government’s edict; Pyongyang said they might close the complex for good. It’s a classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face, to terminate an operation that brings welcome income to the all-but-bankrupt North Korean economy, just to spite their long-suffering neighbour.

Tuesday brought a passive-aggressive display of concern, when the KCNA news agency told foreigners in the region to vamoose: “The situation in the Korean peninsula is inching close to a thermonuclear war. North Korea does not want to see foreigners in South Korea fall victim to the war.” I’m sure they don’t. They have such a record of concern for the lives of others. It’s a shame they don’t show their caring side to their own people, most of whom, since the Russian subsidies dried up in the wake of the USSR’s collapse, have lived at starvation level.

When the American journalist Barbara Demick talked to a doctor at a North Korean hospital for her book, Nothing to Envy, she learned that the hospital had no medicine, bandages, bed linen or intravenous equipment, and that when patients arrived, starving to death, they were advised to cook weeds and grass, mashed up to make soup. All their posing and missile-waving is to distract the people from the need for that infamous repast.                          

How do you solve a problem like North Korea?  The problem now isn’t just the regime’s reignited hostility and threats. The problem is how to take it seriously. Our instincts are, I’m afraid, to laugh at the boy dictator with his podgy frame, comical haircut and shy smile at the commotion which his every public appearance inspires. We’re tempted to laugh at his alleged fondness for Doritos, his army’s Disco-Inferno goose-step, the massed ranks of generals photographed in their hundreds around the Boy Wonder, the hysterical delivery of the local TV announcer, the orchestrated fist-shaking and slogan-shouting of people in the street begging their leader to have a pop at the White House…

We’re tempted to think these people lack a sense of the ridiculous, a feel for irony, a friend who’ll say, “Look, you’re behaving really stupidly. You’re threatening people much better equipped for war than you.  We’ve all had a drink. Shall we get you a cab home?”

We’ve laughed at North Korea before. Anyone who saw Team America: World Police (made by the South Park and Book of Mormon satirists) will recall that Jong-Un’s father, Kim Jong-Il, is portrayed as plotting the destruction of several cities and given a pathetic song about the isolation of power (“I’m so ronery…/  Sitting on my rittle throne…/ When I change the world maybe they’ll notice me.”)

We could laugh some more now and say: “There’s nothing to fear about Kim Jong-Un; his displays of missiles and bloodcurdling threats are all shop window and no stock room.” But the danger is that he may not be planning a war; the danger is that he may be planning a gesture. He’s a big, pampered kid who’s grown up to have things his own way, and have minimal contact with the outside world. His fingers are used to firing digital weapons at things on screens, without thoughts of responsibility or outcome. It’s precisely because of his whimsicality and irresponsibility that we should take him very seriously indeed.

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