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:
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.
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.