Kim Jong Il's funeral on Wednesday was the latest spectacle in a regime well-versed in totalitarian theater. The death of the Dear Leader, with all of the pomp and histrionics of a Kim family event, marks the third act in North Korea's 60-year tragedy. It is also a reminder that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a seriously funny place.
In the final days of Kim Jong Il's reign, I stood in a freezing cave in North Korea. My government guide pointed up at the stunning stalactites winding their way down from the cavern ceiling. He placed a hand on my shoulder and asked me a question I did not expect.
"Which one does yours look like?"
Dick jokes, it turns out, are huge in the DPRK. They are standard fare for the country's stand-up comedians, who from adolescence endure an intense training process -- think Flashdance, but with jokes -- to end up in one of Pyongyang's comedy clubs. Imagine that: being required to pursue the arts. In the Red-Confucianist spin on 1984 that is North Korea, even the laughs are planned. Orwell would have a field day.
Here's another paradox: the regime forbids alcohol in comedy clubs but encourages drinking at the shooting range. Welcome to public policy in North Korea.
These arcane contradictions, like Kim Jong Il's decadent rule over a nation that is infantilized, brutalized, and starving, are part of the DPRK way. When my guide invited me to shoot a live chicken over a round of North Korean beer, I declined the first and downed the second, unsure whether to enjoy the irony or despair over the 24 million people trapped in this totalitarian paradox writ large.
And yet North Koreans laugh -- a lot. They have a real sense of humor. Self-conscious and a bit immature, perhaps, but funny and endearing -- a celebration of the mundane and those human universals, including marriage, love, and the corresponding anatomy. Aside from food and drink, which were difficult to savor in a starving country, laughing was the one unadulterated joy I shared with locals. Humor has no borders.
But it does have boundaries. One local attempted a joke -- the first and only line was "George W. Bush," followed by a planned, awkward pause for laughter and a quick "thank you very much" -- but you will never hear a Kim Jong Il joke or a famine quip in North Korea. In the hermit kingdom, those aren't laughs; they're treason. An estimated 200,000 North Koreans are now in labor camps, many for crimes more innocent than a joke told in poor taste. While I laughed my way along the Youth Hero Highway, 50,000 people were fighting to survive in the concrete walls of Yodok Camp.
How can the rest of the country laugh, then? I asked another of my guides, a porcelain face in her 20s, to tell me her favorite joke.
"OK," she said, giggling. "There is a boy, and all day he is saying that he has to pee, so his mother tells him, 'It is rude to say you have to pee. If you have to pee, just say you have to whistle.'
"That night the boy wakes up because he has to pee. So he wakes up his father and he tells him, 'Father, Father, I have to whistle.'
"And the father says, 'OK, but do it quietly in my ear.'"
Two nights ago, I told a joke about Kim Jong Il during a show in Los Angeles. I got some laughs. But the joke about the whistling kid killed in Pyongyang.
How is that possible? Until two weeks ago a brutal dictator ruled the country. This capricious, nuclear, unstable man inherited a regime from his charismatic father, along with the most severe daddy issues in the dictator club. With a mix of brutal reign and shrewd negotiation, he created a state so laughably powerful, so aimlessly ambitious, that the democratic world had to accept the paradox and work with a nuclear dictator who wore heels to appear taller.
The line between policy and comedy blurred with the help of North Korea's propaganda machine. Official statements, riddled with supernatural hyperbole, read like a Sacha Baron Cohen script. The Pyongyang Times, a propagandist rag, could easily be mistaken for The Onion. You only need to read about Kim Jong Il's gastronomical obsessions or peruse the catalogue of 1,500 works he claims to have authored as a university student to realize that Kim Jong Il was the first dictator-clown in history.
Kim Jong Un, the baby-faced spawn of Jong Il, has assumed control of the DPRK as the "great successor to the revolutionary cause," a tired euphemism for a cruel experiment. He will likely continue the inhumane policies of a totalitarian system, relegating millions of his people to privation, fear, and a repertoire of dick jokes without a two-drink minimum.
Which is both hilarious and true. And if absurdity is a recognition of the truth, then an appreciation for the absurd would be a step forward in our approach to the regime. We must be honest in order to be effective. North Korea is genuinely funny. It is also unquestionably diabolical. Let's take a cue from Pasternak and call each thing by its right name, rather than deny the absurdity of a regime we hope to one day open up.