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July 23, 2014

North Korea Insists Leader is Nothing to Joke About

by Matthew Hilburn

In the United States, mocking political leaders is national pastime that most Americans enjoy. Even the targets of ridicule usually laugh along or ignore it.

In North Korea, poking fun at the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, appears to be viewed as an existential threat.

For example, in April, North Korean officials dropped by a London barber shop, which mocked Kim Jong Un’s hairstyle in a promotional poster. The poster showed Kim famous coiffure and read “bad hair day?”

Earlier this month, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ja Song Nam, filed a formal complaint urging the body to force the U.S. block the release of an upcoming movie, “The Interview.”

The comedy, which stars Seth Rogen and James Franco in a plot to assassinate Kim, mocks North Korea’s ruler.

The complaint read that “to allow the production and distribution of such a film on the assassination of an incumbent Head of a sovereign State should be regarded as the most undisguised sponsoring of terrorism as well as an act of war."

Now this week, North Korea asked China to stop the spread of a viral video that lampoons Kim. According to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, the North says the video, which shows Kim in a variety of silly situations, including being knocked out by President Barack Obama, "seriously compromises Kim's dignity and authority."

While North Korea’s response to the mockery of Kim may seem extreme to many, it is not surprising to North Korea watchers.

“It is a political culture that cannot deal with ‘dissing’ their leaders or their country,” said Katharine H.S. Moon, the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. “Even though we can find humor in it as a clever, entertaining spoof – and have no problem laughing at and with our own political leaders – North Koreans regard the Kims as deities. And so, to them, it is sacrilegious.”

Moon said North Korea may feel compelled to react to these incidents to save face.

“Staying quiet would be an act of cowardice and defeat – that ‘violating’ the sacredness of the Kim family and the leadership of the North Korean people is OK,” she said. “That is not an option for them.”

Moon said she didn’t put much stock in North Korea’s contention that “The Interview” could incite assassination attempts.

“He is so tightly guarded,” she said.  “But the more practical concern is the debasement of Kim's standing and legitimacy.  His youth, lack of experience, lack of secure contacts and friendships with foreign leaders put him in a precarious position. He has to earn the respect and trust of the older military and Korean Worker’s Party leaders.”

The Chinese video presented a new wrinkle as it comes from an erstwhile friendly nation.

According to Moon, “Kim and his small leadership cohort know that China looks down on him and the country, and is tired of dealing with the recalcitrant behavior,” while at the same time, North Korea “does not see itself as a client of China – so, even if it benefits economically and politically from China's power, it has never acted with subservience or servility toward Beijing.”

“The Chinese have let anti-Kim and anti-North Korea expressions run free in China's cyberworld and to a lesser degree in print news,” she said. “North Korea has recently lambasted China publicly, partly for the unofficial oil embargo and partly for dissing it by cozying it up with South Korean president Park Geun-hye.”

She added that North Korea also recently cracked down on the use of China’s currency, the Yuan, in North Korea.

“There's mutual distrust and frustration, if not hostility, between China and North Korea,” she said.

Another reason for the North’s lashing out could be simple insecurity from Kim.

“Kim Jong Il got plenty of buffoonery thrown at him – the hair, the shoes, the movies, the women, the weight,” said Moon.  “But he was the immediate heir to the "Great Leader," and he had decades to build up experience and political support.

“Kim [Jong Un] shows no sense of humor, no ease,” she said.

Here's the Chinese video:

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