Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week Andrea, F. asks:
In hard times many cultures use humor as a coping mechanism. North Korea has been going through hard times for a while now, so are there any jokes North Koreans like to tell? Not necessarily about the government, but even just about daily life. Thanks.
I agree that in tough times laughter is the best cure, but in North Korea people do not make jokes as often as they do in South Korea or other developed countries. I think this is because North Korean people are too tied up with the hardships of life to relax and exchange jokes with other people.
When I was growing up my family did not have many things to laugh about. My mother was always financially stressed and as a result, I used to refrain from laughing in front of her because I knew it could make her upset. I was sixteen years old then and I’m sure you know what girls of that age are like. I could easily burst into laughter at silly things such as a dog barking next door, but I could not laugh in front of my mother – who was literally burnt out from dealing with all the stress and hardships of raising our family.
“Even when I tried to make jokes my mother would never laugh”
Even when I tried to make jokes she would never laugh. Instead, my jokes irritated her. She would often respond, “What do you find so funny? Are you guys feeling easy and comfy laughing while your mother is struggling to death trying to provide food for you?” Her negative reaction sometimes brought me to tears. It was not fair, I thought. I simply could not understand her. It was only after I went to the military that I eventually matured enough to understand the burden and depression that my mother might have felt back then.
I observed similar frustrations in other people I met while working as a vendor in the market. People would become frustrated by small things and would easily be triggered to fight with each other – when someone bumped into someone else, they often ended up actually fighting with each other. It was like all the irritation and frustration was so highly concentrated that they were ready to explode at any moment.
This changed when I came to South Korea and saw the stark difference in how people would react so differently under the same circumstances. For example, in a rush hour metro people always bump into each other or step on each others’ toes, but it seems that in South Korea people do not get upset by these accidents. People apologize and most of the times, they are excused with forgiving smiles.
But in North Korea when you bump into someone you should be ready to hear harsh curses like, “Are you blind or what! What are your eyes for if you will not use them to see other people in front of you?!” It is not that North Koreans enjoy fighting with others, it’s just that they sometimes need an outlet to release their deep frustrations.
“Sometimes jokes appear even in the weirdest situations…such as when I remember a goat and a pig that joined the army!”
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. North Korean people make jokes, too. Despite being struck by poverty and depression, people cannot live their entire life being depressed. And sometimes jokes appear even in the weirdest situations…such as when I remember a goat and a pig that joined the army!
One of my distant relatives was an old man that lived in a countryside raising a goat and a pig. During the daytime, he would stay out cutting the grass to feed his pig and put the goat out to pasture. But one day when I visited his house in the afternoon, I was astonished to found him at home. I asked why he was at home instead of out taking care of his animals as he always did.
“All of a sudden – and at the same time – my goat and pig decided to join the army!!” he said. Of course, it did not make any sense. But he explained further.
The situation was like this: A few days back, a couple of soldiers sneaked into his barn and stole his animals. Searching for the animals, he found a note nearby the area his goat used to stay that said, “Protecting one’s country is the most sacred vocation on earth. Believing what the pig chose to do was a right thing, I am following him. – Sincerely, Your Goat.”
“Believing what the pig chose to do was a right thing, I am following him”
When he showed me the note to me, I didn’t know whether I was supposed to laugh or cry. Maybe the soldiers took the pig first and later came back to take the goat, too? They must have felt sorry for the old man and left a note attempting to justify their theft.
I was very upset with the incident. It was understandable that the thieves were starving and needed something to eat, but again, the loss of a pig and goat might be heartbreaking to my old relative. I knew how much he had been attached to his stock. Well, unlike what I would have done in the same situation, he kept the note neatly folded in his pocket. He said he got over that incident by looking at the crime in a way that made him feel he was feeding his own son with good meat. And if anyone asked about his pig or goat, he would answer that they volunteered to go to the army thanks to his consistent political education. Well, it was his way of dealing with a huge loss!
North Korean people often try to forget about their misfortune by making fun of it. For example, when I used to work in the market there was a vendor there who used to sell medicine. Although she only carried one kind of medicine – for skin problems – she had the loudest voice in the market. Once, when she was shouting at the top of her voice “Here, here! A marvelous medicine for cracked heels!”, another lady responded, “My mouth keeps opening up to ask for more food in these hungry times. Do you happen to have a medicine for that?” The surrounding crowd roared with laughter, empathizing with her sorrow and frustration.
“The day light bulb” was a joke to describe a man who was useless – like a light bulb during the daytime”
Another notable change after the rations stopped was that the status of men and women was reversed. This was because most of the time, it became the women who took charge of the families’ livelihood by making money through market activities. As the men begun to lose their authority in the family, they became known through new nicknames such as ‘the day light bulb’, ‘the almighty lock’ or ‘the bow-wow’. Let me explain:
“The day light bulb” was a joke to describe a man who was useless – like a light bulb during the daytime. “The almighty lock”, while sounding a little more useful than the lightbulb, drew on the fact that at least a family man could keep away thieves from their homes. In North Korea, no matter how sturdy and strong the lock you install on your gate is, you cannot completely protect your home from thieves. The thieves always find a way to break open the lock and steal from your home. So men are called an “almighty lock” because when they stay home all day instead of going to work at least they can protect their homes. A “bow-wow” has a similar meaning, comparing men to the dogs who guard houses. Despite being the brunt of so many jokes, these men could not really complain because they were dependent on their women who went out and earned for them.
There are many more jokes and funny stories that made me laugh to tears. I think you can really enjoy jokes and have a better sense of humor when you’re young and not yet captured by any serious concerns. What I have felt going through all these hard times though is that even a very sharp sense of humor or smart jokes can lose their power when others are overwhelmed by consistent anxiety and worries. Sometimes I dream of a day when finally people in North and South meet and laugh together at very silly jokes, being freed from all these concerns and depressions. What a happy laughter that will be!