NORTH KOREA isn't very funny, and the ghastly Kim Jong Un is no joke. All the more reason not to discount humor — the caustic humor of mockery, satire, and farce — as a weapon against the totalitarian regime in Pyongyang.
For all the outrage generated by North Korea's cyber attack on Sony Pictures' email network, more cold-blooded by far is the Kim government's response within its own borders to Seth Rogen's sophomoric new spoof.
"North Korea has begun the expected crackdown to prevent the movie 'The Interview' from polluting the 'people's paradise,'" reports Nightwatch, a national-security intelligence newsletter. "A three-star general heads up a border task force to keep the movie out. Task force members are going house to house searching for copies of the movie." Any North Korean caught owning or watching the film is likely to be charged with a capital crime.
The death penalty for viewing a potty-mouthed comedy? Can't Pyongyang take a joke?
But there is no such thing as a joke under the deranged cult of personality that requires North Koreans to venerate their dictator as a demigod. Entire families can be sent to slave-labor camps for offenses as trivial as failing to keep a picture of Kim properly dusted. News stories recount executions in crowded stadiums, with victims machine-gunned because they watched South Korean entertainment videos or were found in possession of a Bible. To even the most unsophisticated Western viewer, "The Interview" is obviously lowbrow slapstick. To a North Korean — even an educated member of the Communist Party elite — it could be something much more powerful: a lightning bolt, a jarring, dangerous realization that the Kims are not divine but despicable, and that North Korea under their rule has become one of the worst places on earth.
So the Human Rights Foundation, together with North Korean defector Park Sang Hak, will try to make lightning strike. They plan to dispatch balloons carrying 100,000 copies of "The Interview" — via DVDs and thumb drives — over the border. Though relatively few North Koreans have access to DVD players or computers, the freedom activists know what Pyongyang knows: that even small breaches in the regime's monopoly on information could potentially destabilize the Kim dictatorship.
"North Korea's absolute leadership will crumble if the idolization of leader Kim breaks down," Park told reporters. It's an extreme long shot, of course. So was the dismantling of apartheid and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The horrifying human-rights abuses north of the Demilitarized Zone have drawn growing attention in recent years. But it can be hard for outsiders to grasp just how stupefyingly ignorant North Koreans have been kept by their rulers.
The point is starkly driven home in an unnerving new book.
In Without You, There Is No Us, the Korean-American writer Suki Kim describes her six-month experience as a visiting English teacher at a Pyongyang university in 2011. Her students, sons of regime loyalists, were among the most privileged and sophisticated young men in North Korean society. Yet their lack of awareness about the world was bottomless.
During one exercise, Kim writes, it became apparent that "a simple thing like calling a family member in a foreign country was inconceivable to them." During a game of Truth or Lie, they maintained that an American teaching assistant must be lying about enjoying ski vacations in New York, since they knew for a fact that it never snows there. The students were clueless about the Internet, couldn't understand the meaning of "tax," and reacted with disbelief when they were told that cable customers in America had hundreds of TV channels to choose from.
Steeped in a culture of lies, the students took it for granted that the Kim regime had led North Korea to preeminence in all things. They were sure the Juche Tower in Pyongyang was the tallest anywhere, or that a certain North Korean noodle dish "is hailed as the best food" worldwide. Yet they couldn't identify pictures of the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids.
"What their leaders had told them about being powerful and prosperous was pure fantasy," their teacher longed, but was forbidden, to tell them. "They were behind, farther behind than almost everyone else in the world."
In such a dark place, could even a dopey Seth Rogen comedy — loaded on a thumb drive and wafted in by balloon — conceivably open a fateful crack and let in some light? Pyongyang isn't taking any chances. It certainly isn't laughing.