In an essay written in 1945 titled "Funny, But Not Vulgar," George Orwell argued that "a thing is funny when ... it upsets the established order." Toward the end of the essay, Orwell added, "To be funny, indeed, you have got to be serious."
Radio Free Asia (RFA) took Orwell quite seriously when, in 2008, it asked North Korean defectors if there was humor in North Korea. RFA reported they answered with "a resounding "yes."" The defectors provided jokes that RFA used to spice Korean language programs.
RFA's website provides this particularly rich example: An Englishman, a Frenchman and a North Korean are having a chat. The Englishman says, "I feel happiest when I'm at home, my wool pants on, sitting in front of the fireplace." The Frenchman says: "You English people are so conventional. I feel happiest when I go to a Mediterranean beach with a beautiful blond-haired woman, and we do what we've got to do on the way back." The North Korean says, "In the middle of the night, the secret police knock on the door, shouting, 'Kang Sung-Mee, you're under arrest!' And I say, 'Kang Sung-Mee doesn't live here, but right next door!' That's when we're happiest!"
Military, police, medics and others who work in life-and-death situations use 'gallows humor' to cope. In Kim's Korea, everyone copes using gallows humor because a literal gallows waits for them. If they get to laugh one more night, it's a good joke.
The sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in late March is no joke, however. The North Korean torpedo that sank the ship and killed 46 sailors is a wake-up knock from a nuclear-armed police state that starves, jails and murders its own people, runs a global weapons and narcotics smuggling ring, and uses assassins, kidnappers, terrorists, ballistic missiles, soldiers and nuclear weapons to extort cash from neighboring South Korea and Japan.
Consider the record. Kim Il-Sung, who launched the Korean War 60 years ago, waged a low-level war along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) from 1966 to 1976. In 1983, North Korean assassins detonated a bomb in Rangoon, Myanmar, that killed 17 South Korean officials.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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