This article originally appeared in The Berggruen Institute on Governance and The Huffington Post’s WorldPost
Hands up — who changed a Facebook pic to show solidarity with Paris? Raged about the barbarity of the gunmen? Or even, for those “tragedy hipsters” among us, bemoaned the relative indifference of Westerners to other brutal attacks in Lebanon, Kenya and now Nigeria? Me too. What about the World Food Programme’s confirmation — for the umpteenth time — that 1 in 3 North Korean children is stunted due to malnutrition? Anyone? But I bet you’ve seen that video of those “creepy” North Korean kids playing guitar.
Unlike posts about Syria and almost any other hotbed of humanitarian crises, the North Korea-related posts that “break the Internet” tend to be those making fun; of Kim Jong Un’s haircut or the nation’s tech-poverty, for example. Rather than focusing, for instance, on the fact that 2015 crop yields are down 10-15 percent in a country dogged by chronic hunger since a famine in the 1990s that wiped out up to 5 percent of the population, we delight in the apparent ridiculousness of propaganda slogans such as: “Let us turn ours into a country of mushrooms!”
In our irony-obsessed, meme-driven culture, laughing at North Korea has become a major sport. With the permeation of social media into almost every aspect of life in the last few years, quick click posts often win the day, and sadly North Korea is a country with a slew of gritty problems but a dearth of gritty images to actually illustrate them.
In our irony-obsessed, meme-driven culture, laughing at North Korea has become a major sport.
Given that the DPRK is a nation in which foreign visitors find themselves under constant surveillance, their camera images vetted — a country where the crime of unauthorized “native” journalism (North Koreans smuggling out footage of public executions, for example) is punishable by death — it is no surprise that we often see little more on the web than the sort of polished pictures available in North Korean propaganda journals themselves. Such images are fascinating and captivating of course; the goose-stepping military, the crowds bowing before the leaders’ statues. Increasingly, we’re also seeing little details that Westerners can relate to — a flash of a smartphone here or an expensive car there — evidence of a gray market-driven consumerism that has been incubating for years. These glimpses of consumer products in the DPRK are probably the most common driver of our “oh, perhaps they’re just like us” moments. Such social media favorites, often touted as “daily life in North Korea,” mostly star elites in Pyongyang, the showcase capital where 9 out of 10 North Koreans could only dream of living.
Amongst all this, we Westerners know vaguely that millions of North Koreans have suffered immeasurably, as the latest U.N. report confirms. But unlike in Paris or Syria, there are no iconic photographs to encapsulate the crisis and prick our collective conscience. There are no close-ups of emaciated labor camp prisoners — but these people exist. There are no pictures of guards enacting forced abortions and torture, unless you count the many stick drawings completed by former prisoners. There is little to connect the defector stories we’ve heard with actual images, and in the digital era, the image is almost everything. Perhaps this is one reason for North Korea’s more frequent status as joke fodder than tear-jerker. The Hermit Kingdom simply doesn’t offer the social media user an easy I’m-a-good-person share factor. But there is plenty of retweet mileage in a cleverly photoshopped meme.
Perhaps just as crucially, even if images of these reported horrors were in abundance, there would be no straightforward calls to action to caption them with. How do you solve a problem like North Korea? This seemingly impossible geopolitical conundrum is why, beyond the memes, North Korea remains mostly the preserve of professional watchers and international relations geeks. Since before the Korean War, the peninsula has been seen as somewhat of a proxy for competing interests, something that the regime in Pyongyang has always known and exploited, during the Cold War and on into these changed political times. What do you get when you cross a rogue nuclear state with one of the globe’s biggest tech powerhouses, each with their own rival world power having served as its historic sponsor (China and the USA respectively)? I don’t think anyone wants to know the punchline to that one.
At what point do memes cease to be subversive, becoming perhaps instead a rather grotesque display of privilege, since we are able to laugh so much and so often at a man whom millions are afraid of?
Last year, when a special U.N. report detailed “unspeakable atrocities” inflicted on North Korean people, the commission’s chair drew parallels with the Holocaust, warning that other nations would not have the same excuse employed around the world when the Nazi camps were liberated; namely that they “didn’t know.” Inquiry chairman Michael Kirby said: “Now the international community does know. There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn’t know. It’s too long now. The suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action.” But what should our response be?
When a personality cult helps to uphold corruption and brutality in a dictatorship, satire can be a subversive force for change — a point that The Interview movie, in its own half-witted way, was perhaps trying to make. On the other hand, despite the tide of moving defector memoirs being released and the increasing demand for information on the secretive state, in the West there is a lack of truly mass movements advocating for North Korean human rights. To illustrate: the most successful Change.org petition in the last couple of years urging China to stop its North Korean refugee repatriation policy received a total of less than 1600 signatures. On the other hand, a petition about the Yulin dog meat festival on the same website garnered over 4.3 million supporters. Add to that the World Food Programme’s revelation that it will need to extend its fundraising deadline again, because it has reached only half of its $160 million target for North Korea — and perhaps it’s time we all took a good long look at the way we conceptualize the DPRK, and if it is helpful.
Of course, giving food aid to North Korea is not without significant controversy, and perfectly illustrates the point that any discussion of the DPRK always generates more questions than it answers. But ask these questions we must, or else become mere passive consumers of other people’s suffering. Is the unending barrage of North Korea satire causing us to lose our sense of urgency with respect to the country’s humanitarian problems? At what point do memes cease to be subversive, becoming perhaps instead a rather grotesque display of privilege, since we are able to laugh so much and so often at a man whom millions are afraid of? Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector and human rights activist recently weighed in on this, telling Westerners they lived in a comparative “paradise,” and tearfully begging for us to take North Korea’s plight seriously: “To me it’s not a joke.”