The top North Korean leadership has attracted a great deal of attention in the world media – especially given the meager economic significance of the country they run (after all, in terms of its size the North’s economy rivals that of Ghana and Mozambique).
However, it is an open secret that most of this attention has not merely been unfavorable; in many cases, the Kim dynasty is seen as the object of ridicule. Indeed, for the average reader of the Western media, neither Kim Jong Un nor his late father Kim Jong Il are usually seen as the embodiment of evil incarnate. Rather, they are the butt of jokes, often rather crude.
There are many reasons why the Western media likes to make fun of North Korea and its rulers. To start with, the North Korean strongman looks comical – plump, round-faced, with an awful hair-do, dressed in strange and anachronistic garb. The “tyrants of Pyongyang” project a comical, almost clownish air, instead of looking like scheming, evil masterminds.
It does not help that the North Korean media is fond of picturesque expressions and macabre threats that hardly could be taken seriously by the modern Western reader. Even the insults that they throw at the “U.S. imperialists and their stooges” sound ridiculous rather than menacing. Few Westerners are going to be impressed when they see how state leaders are described as “a confrontation maniac just like a rabid dog always keen on biting others,” or “a mentally deranged person steeped in the inveterate enmity towards the system in the DPRK.”
However, does the average North Korean understand this? Does the average (or even relatively well-informed) North Korean understand that the rulers of their country, whom he/she might despise or admire – depending on personal political inclinations – are a joke in the eyes of the world? I am inclined to believe that this question should be answered in the negative.
When Kim Il Sung’s personality cult began to emerge in earnest in the late 1950s, the North Korean media spent much time telling its readers about the great popularity allegedly enjoyed by the North Korean leadership worldwide. Since then, this alleged popularity has always been an important topic of North Korean propaganda. As a matter of fact, the North Korean media increased the level of adulation of the Kim family leadership through the introduction of eulogies allegedly bestowed upon the leaders by its overseas admirers.
Indeed, the foreign component to the Kim cult is quite important in the officially endorsed North Korean worldview. It seems to be the major reason why the North Korean government provides support to assorted Juche study groups worldwide.
…the North Korean state spent a significant amount of the meager resources at its disposal to create and encourage a worldwide Juche movement
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the North Korean government seriously entertained the idea of making the Juche idea into a worldwide ideology capable of competing with Leninism, Maoism and other radical leftist ideas. Back then, the North Korean state spent a significant amount of the meager resources at its disposal to create and encourage a worldwide Juche movement.
By the late 1970s, it became obvious that such investments had gone nowhere, since the Juche idea had won very few authentic supporters. Nonetheless, the subsidies for the Juche study groups were not completely discontinued, though such support was significantly scaled back. Foreign Juche admirers were still occasionally flown to Pyongyang at the expense of the North Korean state, but their role was different and related largely to the domestic policy issues. These people came to play the role of props in the country’s propaganda narrative targeting its internal audience. The admiring foreigners regularly appear on TV screens and newspaper pages to deliver panes to the greatness of the leadership and tell the North Korean people how popular their ruling Kim family is worldwide.
Virtually every issue of North Korea’s major newspapers continues to contain at least one piece detailing the activities of Kim supporters worldwide or in one corner of the globe. The North Korean people are constantly reminded that their leaders are respected across the world – not only because of the might of their weapons but also because of the irresistible nature of their ideas.
For example, in the last three days of February, the North Korean media reported the following events: meetings held in Uganda, Pakistan, Congo, Dominican Republic, Russia, Nigeria, Nepal, Benin and South Africa to celebrate Kim Jong Il’s recent birthday; articles about the Kim family’s great achievement published by newspapers in Germany, Russia, Italy, Thailand, Uruguay, Malaysia, Cambodia; seminars and other events in Italy, Uganda, Egypt, Poland and Austria. In most cases these were small-scale events, paid for by North Korean embassies, and the publications in question were run by either marginal radical newspapers or as paid advertisements by somewhat larger outlets. Nonetheless, the average North Korean has no way of knowing that the Die Rote Fahne, which published some homage to Kim Jong Un, is a website run by one of five or six competing but tiny “communist parties” of Germany.
They have only vague ideas about world fashion, so the dress of their leaders does not look to them extravagant, anachronistic or kitsch
To make things more complicated, many peculiar features of North Korean life and culture that appear bizarre to outside observers look perfectly natural to North Koreans themselves. They have only vague ideas about world fashion, so the dress of their leaders does not look to them extravagant, anachronistic or kitsch. The bellicose rhetoric attracting so much mockery in the West is the type of idiom they grew with, and they do not see anything strange when foreign leaders are described as “rabid dogs on the run.”
And, of course, they are bombarded with propaganda whose goal is to present their country as a major player, and their leaders as figures which inspire admiration or at least awe across the world. They are told, for example, that 450 streets in 100 countries have been named after Kim Il Sung, that he was awarded honorary degrees from 80 universities and granted audiences to some 5,000 top government officials from across the world. The North Koreans believe these figures, which clearly leave little doubt as to whether Kim the Senior was taken seriously worldwide.
Does this propaganda work? It seems to be the case, if my own interactions with North Korean refugees indicate anything. Many refugees may have a hostile or, at least, highly critical attitude to the North Korean government and its leaders. To them, the Kim dynasty is nothing but a set of evil tyrants, hellbent on furthering their own malign interests – not a bunch of clowns whose “insults are as ridiculous as their haircuts.” Refugees definitely do not think of the North Korean leaders as being stout, permed clones, worthy of only laughter and scorn. Furthermore, when they encounter such attitude, they sometimes feel offended, since these jokes are seen as an insult to their country as well.
North Koreans might admire or hate their leaders, but they do not seem them as the object of fun, and they hardly realize that this is how their leaders are often seen outside the country.
Of course, it remains an open question whether the Kims themselves, never deprived of access to foreign media, are aware of whether global popular culture has assigned them the peculiar positions of clowns. Kim Jong Un probably saw The Interview, after all, and his father, a known movie aficionado, likely saw Team America. However, it seems likely that even the Kims do not fully appreciate the scale of the problem. After all, most of the jokes are verbal, and hardly translated to them by their secretaries (neither Kim Il Sung nor Kim Jong Il read any Western language fluently). And, of course, one should not forget about the psychological protection all of us have in dealing with such situations. Thus, one should suspect: While the Kims are indeed figures of fun, neither their subjects nor the rulers themselves are fully aware of this.
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