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.
After his father's death in 1994, Kim Jong-Il threatened violence during the various 1990s nuclear negotiations. This decade, Kim fired ballistic missiles and detonated a nuke. South Korea and its allies rewarded the regime's armed tantrums with food and economic aid. Liberal South Korean presidents dubbed it The Sunshine Policy -- an outreach to North Korea's suffering people. The policy sought to demonstrate to Kim the benefits of economic cooperation. Critics like current South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, however, argued gifts met with insistent belligerence was stupid diplomacy.
The North Korean police state's midnight torpedo knock completely kills the Sunshine Policy.
Why the torpedo? In a column written three weeks ago, I suggested that the attack might be a macabre 60th anniversary commemoration of North Korea's attack on South Korea, one appealing to the malign psyche of North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong-Il. After all, Kim gets his sexed-up jollies by sending commandos south to kidnap movie starlets whom he then enslaves as concubines. He's a sociopath who uses violence to get what he wants.
Kim can't handle real sunshine -- the truth. In the 60 years since the Korean War began, South Korea has decisively defeated North Korea in the social and economic spheres. Only in military terms, in the base destructive power of Pyongyang's large armies and nascent nuclear weapons program, does the North challenge the South. War is all Kim has. Violence is how he controls his own people -- assassination and threats of nuclear immolation are how he relates to the rest of the world.
As we enter the summer of 2010, the risk of all-out war on the Korean Peninsula is quite high, and possibly the highest it has been since the armistice was signed in 1953. The armistice suspended major combat -- it is not a peace treaty. The situation is quite serious. It's time to end the Korean War, and that means ending the Kim regime, not placating it. That's the message to send Pyongyang. Until South Korea and the Obama administration face that fact, the wicked joke is on us.
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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