Laughter in North Korea

Laughing North Korean. Photo courtesy of Eric Lafforge

It is the most vilified country on earth. We’re daily bombarded by stories about their nuclear capability. However, there is another side to the brutal dictatorship, which we seldom hear about, namely, its people. What are their favorite pastimes, what makes them happy, and what puts a smile on their faces? Online, I met one very rare professor who studies laughter and comedy in North Korea, and I asked him some questions.

Professor Dima Mironenko is a renowned expert on North Korean culture, and a former lecturer at Yale University. He now works in Jerusalem in Israel.

Historyradio.org: So, would you say the North Koreans have a sense of humor?

Professor Dima Mironenko:

In a way, it is a ridiculous question to pose, in the first place, tantamount to asking if North Koreans breathe or procreate. Of course, they do! Moreover, they can cry and even get angry, too, just like any other humans (and even some modern humanoids). Unfortunately, politicized Western propaganda has driven us to ask these kind of questions in all seriousness, which is, perhaps, more symptomatic of us as a culture in deep crisis than telling in any useful way of the foreign people in question here.

Historyradio.org: Why should we care about their sense of humor? Why does it matter? They want to bomb us, don’t they?

Professor Dima Mironenko:

Why care about anything other than our precious selves, to begin with?.. Perhaps, because the best way to truly understand something about our own selves is through seeing and understanding that in the ‘Other.’ The more different from us this ‘Other,’ the better it is for the process of self-learning and self-discovery. The fact that we want to obliterate each other (and not only with bombs) speaks volumes of our mutual lack of desire to look at our own selves seriously and introspectively through this kind of inverted mirror of Truth.

Historyradio.org: If you were to describe the comedy of North Korea, would you say it is physical comedy in the tradition of Chaplin, stand-up, or satire?

Professor Dima Mironenko:

From my own research, I can say that the so-called North Korean brand of comedy artfully combines the best of the slapstick tradition of Charlie Chaplin with witty and biting satire in the vein of early Soviet futurists. It is little wonder, then, that, as an object of ridicule, we tend to find this sort of satire ‘distasteful’ and ‘crude.’ The more kudos to its ingenious producers, I would only add. I have recently also encountered some wonderful examples of North Korea stand-up comedy on the Internet.

Historyradio.org: There is an extensive movie industry in North Korea. Do they have any good comedies, as well? What sort of films are they?

Professor Dima Mironenko:

They do, and some of them, in my humble opinion, could teach us a thing or two about comedy and humor, as well. In the mid-1960s, North Koreans pioneered a unique genre of ‘light comedy,’ which was a marriage of sorts between classic Hollywood musical comedies and post-Confucian propriety. Many of them are romantic sitcoms at their best. I cannot really give away more at this point, otherwise no one would want to buy my forthcoming book precisely on this topic, which was some 10 years in the making. So, please look for answers in the bookstores near you very soon!

Historyradio.org: You may have heard about how Egyptian and Turkish comedians are threatened by their governments. Isn’t it very dangerous to be funny in North Korea?

Professor Dima Mironenko:

Anything can turn dangerous and even deadly, and you don’t have to find yourself in Egypt, Turkey, or North Korea, for that matter. It all depends on whether one is acting ‘smart funny’ or ‘stupid funny.’ Those who act ‘stupid funny’ always find ways to hurt themselves even under the most felicitous circumstances imaginable. So, I would say that the real funny, which utilizes wit and does so at its very best, will never cross that line, no matter what. And that, perhaps, is the true measure of Humor with a capital ‘H.’

Historyradio.org: If you were to recommend one classic piece of humor from North Korea, what would it be?

Professor Dima Mironenko:

Most of their anti-American satire is truly top-notch, whether in the form of political cartoons, children’s animation, or comic circus acts. I would recommend anything you can find on YouTube, if you can’t book the next tour to the DPRK, and you will find a great deal these days. I would also like to remind that official state-produced humor reveals only a tiny tip of the iceberg.

If you really wanted to get a sense of the depth and versatility of North Korean humor, I would suggest perusing the web sites (many of them translated into English today) of North Korean defectors, where you can find all sorts of amazing jokes, which will forever change your idea of who North Koreans really are. Once we start laughing with our so-called ‘enemies,’ they are no longer our enemies, but true friends. Go out and try it for yourself—it worked for a lot of my former students at Harvard and Yale, and I’m sure it will work for anyone who would bother to do the hard work of cracking up with the jokers!

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