It’s increasingly clear that Americans love to laugh at North Korea.
And what’s not to enjoy? It’s small, angry, far away, and endearingly spiteful in ways that never yield material consequences for us. It makes our laughter so easy.
But in our mirthful condescension, we may be making a critical mistake: in ridiculing people of whom we have limited understanding, we fail to see them as completely human. And if history’s taught us anything, it’s that we’re capable of doing terrible things to people we’ve dehumanized.
In our modern conception, it started with Kim Jong-Il. We found humor in his retreating hairline and electrified stock of hair, his retro eyeglass frames and diminuitive stature. We never had any inkling of the man as a human. For many, he was just the little puppet from Team America with a "funny" accent who sang about being "ronery."
Photo Credit: Mirror
He was widely dismissed as crazy, and his son is no different.
I’ve personally poked fun at Kim Jong-un’s remarkably well-kept fade hairdo, and his public alignment with another figure widely labeled as "bizarre" (Dennis Rodman) did him few favors. Entire blogs are dedicated to him (and his father) looking and pointing at things.
In a way, these perfectly encapsulate how little we know of these men, and by extension, the people they govern: In the absence of knowledge about what they’re actually discussing, we’re reduced to speculation based on visual representations. And if recent events are an indicator, how North Korea represents itself is notably misleading.
This morning’s news is filled with talk of threats: North Korea pointing nuclear missiles at the U.S., preparing for launch, in addition to the uncovering of an alleged "U.S. Mainland Strike Plan" map, targeting locations like Guam, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Austin, and D.C.
Experts are quick to point out that North Korean missiles won’t reach any of these places due to technological incapabilities. And of course, this makes it even easier to laugh at their seemingly ludicrous threats: A Gawker post even pokes fun at the idea of Un targeting Austin, of all places.
Still, we continue to know little about them as people. We understand their nuclear capabilities, it seems, and we’ve been told that they’re starving, oppressed, and brainwashed. Everything about them is publicly posited as so different from our American experience that they might as well be from another planet.
They are the quintessential "other." And as such, they make us laugh.
Photo Credit: Telegraph
This is not to say that humor is the problem. Jokes and satire have long proven important ways of critiquing and affecting change in attitudes, for better or for worse. But with North Korea, it also feeds into a notably empty body of knowledge: We’re mostly laughing at something because it’s "strange" and different.
Perhaps equally telling is that North Korea thrives off what we don’t know about it. Its (limited) power lies in its mystique, and in some ways this seems mutually beneficial for both of our nations.
There’s an inherent danger here. It’s no stretch to imagine being sold on a future war in the Korean peninsula, or believing North Korean aggression to be an inherent cultural characteristic, fuelled by this ignorance. It’s happened before.
Yet oddly enough, this doesn’t make it any less funny.