My Week in North Korea

A Soviet-born American tours the Hermit Kingdom and finds humanity in a most inhumane place.

How do you make a North Korean laugh?

To American ears that sounds like the set-up to a joke. The very idea of a North Korean giggling seems absurd. What can there possibly be to laugh about? The country has been ruled for more than half a century by absolute dictators who periodically threaten to blow up the world. It is populated by the children of a 1990s famine, malnourished orphans with oversized heads who never grew. It is forbidden to use the orphans’ nickname: kotchebi, or “little sparrows,” a reference to their habit of flitting around in the dirt looking for crumbs to eat.

Western impressions of North Korean culture are filtered through the prism of their totalitarian government and unrelieved misery. Day-to-day life is usually imagined as one of constant drudgery and fear. In 1965, Robert Jenkins was one of the few U.S. soldiers to defect into North Korea. Escaping four decades later, he wrote, “I did not understand that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison.”

But even prisons have culture, rules, and humanity, as do prisons within prisons (like, say, solitary confinement). Prisoners also have jokes. Humor can be the last tactic for staying sane in the face of unspeakable oppression, as the gallows humor of Eastern European Jewry can attest.

So making a North Korean laugh, it turns out, is actually quite easy. How do you do it? Take every racist joke you know—they will not have heard them, I assure you—and replace the target race, no matter what it is, with “Japanese.” To wit: What do you call 100,000 Japanese men at the bottom of the ocean? A good start. How do you stop a Japanese man from drowning? Take your foot off his neck. It’s just that easy to become the funniest person in the entire country of North Korea.

They have their own jokes too but, like the rest of their products, these can’t compete on an international scale. To quote my guide during my five-day trip to the Hermit Kingdom late last year:

Knock, knock

Who’s there?


Su who?

Su Pak (Korean for watermelon).

Some North Korean humor, though, is actually quite good. As I was driven into Pyongyang from the airport, our guide referred to the monolith Ryugyong Hotel as “our latest rocket launch,” a quip that both acknowledged the tension between our respective nations and simultaneously defused it (pun intended, God help us), all while seeming quite daring to an outsider. It was the first of a constant series of surprises I experienced during my eye-opening visit to the world’s darkest dictatorship.

Exciters Unwelcome

It’s easy to get into North Korea as a tourist. The reason is the most capitalist one possible: They need money. In 1980, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) achieved the dubious honor of being the first Communist nation to default on its loans, ruining its credit rating to this day. The following three decades were hardly better for the DPRK’s international reputation. The 1990s collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe removed most of their strongest allies. President George W. Bush famously included North Korea on his “axis of evil,” and despite Dennis Rodman’s best efforts President Barack Obama will not be calling on Marshall Kim Jong Un any time soon. Like his father, Kim Jong Il, and his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, this dictator is a global oddity. 

China, the DPRK’s closest ally, has been urging North Korea to follow its lead and liberalize the economy. The North Koreans steadfastly refuse. And though the DPRK still insists that the Korean peninsula is one nation riven in two by U.S. imperialists, South Korea is increasingly uninterested in having anything to do with its backward brother.

Michael Malice is the author of the forthcoming Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il. He is also the subject of Harvey Pekar's graphic novel Ego & Hubris (Ballantine) and the co-author of several other books.

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  • Raston Bot||

    What's green and sits on the porch? My Jap, I paint him any color I want.

    That joke kills in North Korea.

  • Hoss||

    That's funnier than the crude "jap"
    joke, above.

  • Almanian!||

    You don't want to buy Japanese tires. Know why?

    Cause when Dago flat Dago "wop, wop, wop...." !!!

    OK, not ALL of these jokes work by substituting Japanese for others...

  • Almanian!||

    [Animal Mother to Japanese soldier beside him]

    "Thank God for the sickle cell, huh?" Mmmmmmm - nope.

  • Almanian!||

    "You know any motherfuckin' Japanese RACE CAR drivers? I think you see my point..."

    No, see, this just isn't working...

  • Almanian!||

    *pulls out sides of throat with both hands*

    What's this?

    A Japanese kid choking on a piece of rice....

    No, see....

  • Almanian!||

    You know why the Japanese guy walks around carrying a car door?

    So when it gets too hot, he can just roll down the window....


    OK, THAT one worked.

  • fish_remote||

    What's the fastest way to blind a ....(looks around furtively).....a Japanese guy?

    Put a windshield in front of him!


    Thanks I'm here all week!

  • Almanian!||

    I don't get it.


  • ZackTheHypochondriac||

    “Then your mother must have hated Russia.”

    I have to admit I didn't expect that and it hit me pretty hard. The tone of the article was surprisingly optimistic for a reason article on NK and I was kinda hoping for a happier ending that she was at least not miserable with her life.

  • Curtisls87||

    This. A floating sense of melancholy was rising in my mind until this line. At once, I thought, how poignant, how clever, and how utterly sad.

  • Metazoan||

    Yeah, that was a pretty powerful line.

  • NebulousFocus||

    +1 :(

  • Paul.||

    “I did not understand that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison.”

    He wasn't the first defector into a communist hellhole to come to the same conclusions. Luckily, he survived his realization. Not everyone did. Choose wisely, Mr. Snowden.

  • Sevo||

    "Choose wisely, Mr. Snowden."
    I'm not sure Snowden has a lot of choices right now.

  • Paul.||

    Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader

    Wasn't that the title of the New York Times' 2008 presidential endorsement?

  • PACW||


  • Paul.||

    A soldier stopped the woman and made a comment, clearly something along the lines of “Papers, please.” I watched her roll her eyes and practically could hear her snorting with disgust

    So they are more like America than we thought.

  • Paul.||

    Kim Il Sung’s second wife is a non-person, for example, and to this day few people anywhere know how many times Kim Jong Il was married, and when.

    I believe the proper term is an 'un-person'.

  • Paul.||

    1) Don’t denigrate the Leaders, 2) Don’t denigrate the government, and 3) Don’t acknowledge anything is wrong.

    So the New York Times style guide.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    It is populated by the children of a 1990s famine, malnourished orphans with oversized heads who never grew.

    Must have been all that Victorian-style capitalism.

  • LynchPin1477||

    I tried to feel Kim out during our travels together

    Now the truth comes out.

  • Rhywun||

    I'm assuming the crime rate is lower - in which case, one would certainly feel safer. I've felt safer walking around the streets of Beijing than in any American city - doesn't mean I'm a commie or I would ever want to live there.

  • Metazoan||

    If you exclude the crime committed by the government, I suppose.

  • Sevo||

    Metazoan| 7.23.13 @ 8:58PM |#
    "If you exclude the crime committed by the government, I suppose."

    Beat me to it.

  • Metazoan||

    If you exclude the crime committed by the government, I suppose.

  • Metazoan||

    If you exclude the crime committed by the government, I suppose.

  • Metazoan||

    Wow, I really meant it I guess :P

  • Boisfeuras||

    I'd be skeptical of how much lower the crime rates actually are under totalitarian regimes. The Soviet Union and China still had organized criminal syndicates, the vory and triads. Totalitarian states have no reason to publicize accurate crime statistics, which undermine their own legitimacy.

  • Greendogo||

    I agree. I have to think this would have to do more with the attempt to maintain an aura of civility and control for the tourists.

  • Tejicano||

    I don't see where this is even a question.

    If you are walking around a place where you are obviously (by your race and clothing) a guest of the State no local will so much as cross your path when they know that any crime committed against you will reflect poorly on the State and most probably end with that local and his/her entire extended family being thrown into a living Hell on earth. No line could be clearer and no punishment more extreme.

  • MappRapp||

    Dude is like totally rocking it man. WOw.

  • Luddite||

    Pariahs on the world stage, North Koreans proclaim a philosophy of self-reliance and absolute autonomy they call “juche.”

    I wager that one might pronounce "juche" as "juice". So is that the DPRK version of swag?

  • MOFO.||

    Ive always heard it pronounced like jew-shay

  • Faceless Commenter||


  • ||

    Antisemitism, straight up.

  • sphilben||

    What's the highest mountain (산) in Korea? 낙하산 (parachute)!

    Hmm, it's funnier in Korean.

  • XM||

    Why do Americans call Koreans "gooks"? Because when they get off the airplane in America, the first thing they say is "Migook!" ("America" in Korean)

  • BrendaMitchell||

    what Jonathan implied I'm surprised that you able to get paid $8990 in a few weeks on the internet. have you read this site...

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    So while the contemporary Internet might be forbidden in North Korea, there’s a thriving black market in VCRs—the better to watch foreign videotapes on. Though I didn’t think of it at the time, the woman and the solider provided a perfect metaphor for where the modern dynamism in North Korea lies.

    I read somewhere that the police/military will shut off all of the power to a building, then check room by room for VCRs and unapproved tapes.

  • Tomblvd||

    They don't have to shut off the power, they just wait around until it goes off by itself, which it always does.

  • XM||

    Subak, not Supak.


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