What Makes North Koreans Laugh? Not Western Comics

2006-12-01
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Danish broadcaster Mads Brugger at a march in Pyongyang. Photo courtesy of DR-TV.

SEOUL—Anyone aiming to make North Koreans laugh should take a lesson from a Danish comedy team just back from the world’s most isolated country: Danish fairy tales probably won't work.

Danish DR-TV broadcaster Mads Brugger, known in Europe for his comic exploits, “wanted to find out if laughter still existed in North Korea,” Bruger said, ahead of the Dec. 1 launch of his documentary about a 16-day visit to North Korea this year.

“I conducted about three weeks of research, and then, in May 2006, I embarked on my 16-day journey together with two Danish comedians of Korean origin. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy to obtain an entry permit from the North Korean authorities, but I contacted them and offered them that two Danish comedians would come to North Korea and do a humorous play,” he said.

“I really emphasized to them that it would be a non-political, non-ideological play. And they just gave us the green light. I was stunned to see how easily they approved our visit,” Brugger said.

I embarked on a quest for laughter in North Korea. It was quite obvious that the comedy we staged did not seem funny at all to the North Koreans.

At one point, he said, “the two Danish-Korean comedians presented an [entirely] satirical or funny version of the fairy tale ‘The Princess and the Pea,’ by ... Hans Christian Andersen. The play is outrageously funny, but apparently not for North Koreans.”

It wasn’t language that made the play fall flat, he said, adding: “It’s mostly slapstick pantomime, with no spoken lines and thus very easy to understand.”

Rather, Brugger said, the North Korean audience may have feared laughing because the play takes sardonic aim at the ruling classes—depicted as enjoying a far more comfortable existence than the commoners they rule.

A tradition of satire, but still

“This is politically incorrect in North Korea. Since all North Koreans live in a 'workers’ paradise,' presenting aristocrats delighting in their plentiful lifestyle may be perceived as offensive to the North Korean ideology.”

Never mind that the Korean Peninsula has its own longstanding tradition of haehahk or ikssal —homegrown words denoting a sort of vaudeville skewering of the ruling classes.

Public haehahk or ikssal performances in streets and marketplaces were especially popular during the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910). That, however, predated Japanese occupation and the permanent division of the Korean Peninsula nearly 54 years ago. And in the North Korea that remains today, real or perceived sallies against those in power can carry the risk of summary imprisonment or worse.

So forget “The Princess and the Pea,” said Brugger: It just doesn’t fly.

All other considerations aside, I chose North Korea because I knew it would be interesting. Through this visit, I wanted to find out if laughter still existed in North Korea.

Brugger is well known for his insouciance.

During the 2004 U.S. presidential elections, Brugger visited the United States to produce the satirical documentary “Dance for Bush,” an instant internet hit.

'A quest for laughter' and a pizza shovel

Once in North Korea, Brugger—offering a customary gift to the country’s so-called “great leader” Kim Jong Il—proffered what he described as “a pizza shovel, because rumor had it that the Dear Leader really liked pizza.”

“It is said that, especially when he travels in the country, he enjoys pizza, as it is easy to grab a bite of pizza on the go. A few years ago, an Italian pizza chef spent some time in North Korea cooking pizza for Chairman Kim Jong Il. Later, he wrote a book about his North Korean experience, also mentioning Chairman Kim’s taste for pizza.”

“I chose to produce a documentary in North Korea because I think it is a fascinating place,” he said. “As long as North Korea exists in its current form, one can say that globalization has not been accomplished…North Korea is the world’s last anti-globalist bastion.”

...One day, the spectators who were watching [the Danish comedians] will look back and have a good laugh among themselves.

“All other considerations aside, I chose North Korea because I knew it would be interesting. Through this visit, I wanted to find out if laughter still existed in North Korea,” he said.

“I embarked on a quest for laughter in North Korea,” Brugger said. “It was quite obvious that the comedy we staged did not seem funny at all to the North Koreans. To top it off, the authorities turned our comedy into a propaganda stunt for the regime.”

“Apart from staging the play, we traveled around the country. We went to the Demilitarized Zone and museums, but it soon became obvious to us that they were exploiting us for political purposes. One day, there was a colossal anti-American demonstration in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square.”

“The authorities placed us in front of the marching masses, to show the world that the North Korean people were supporting the regime and that many foreigners sympathized with them. This whole situation is funny,” Brugger said.

Defectors say comedy is politically correct

Even if Brugger’s audience wanted to chuckle out loud, they wouldn’t have dared, according to several North Korean defectors who spoke to RFA’s Korean service on Friday.

In North Korea, there are movies produced under the slogan ‘Let’s Correct This Trend,’ which aim to capture social issues through comedy...There is also the famous Summit circus troupe, there are half-time shows during sports events, all really funny, just like South Korean comedy shows.

“People may like what they see or hear from foreigners, but they just cannot laugh openly in front of them, especially if they are journalists. Everyone is under continuous surveillance,” a female defector who asked to be identified only as C.A. Kim said.

“If word gets out in the press that some people had a good laugh because of a subject matter presented to them by a foreigner, especially by an American or South Korean journalist, they will be under the lens of the political watchdogs, and will soon find themselves in trouble.”

“However, one day, the spectators who were watching [the Danish program] will look back and have a good laugh among themselves,” she said.

“There are theaters in Pyongyang, including puppet theaters and the Grand Theater Hall. All theatrical performances are concerned with worshipping Kim Il Song and Kim Jong Il and boost their cult of personality. But North Koreans are also human beings, who fall in love, nurture affection and have a lot of emotions,” Kim said.

She and another defector, who asked to be identified as A. E. Yi, noted that most performances in North Korea are produced with the country’s Stalinist politics in mind.

“The performance by the Danish artists would be categorized as a comedy in North Korea. In North Korea, there are also movies produced under the slogan ‘Let’s Correct This Trend,’ which aim to capture social issues through comedy,” Ms. Yi said. “There is also the famous Summit circus troupe, there are half-time shows during sports events, all really funny, just like South Korean comedy shows.”

Y. Kang, who fled to South Korea in 1999, said North Koreans have in the past enjoyed homegrown sitcoms on television as well.

“These shows are mostly… about everyday life, and often draw their humor from misunderstandings among people. If a comedian dared to make a political reference, he would vanish the following day, and no one would ever know his fate.”

“Since the death of [founding president] Kim Il Sung in 1994, people have had little time to laugh,” he added. “On television, there is nothing to watch and nothing to laugh at.”

Brugger's four-part series on North Korea begins airing in Denmark Dec. 1.

Original reporting by Myeong Hwa Jang for RFA's Korean service. Service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Translation by Greg Scarlatoiu. Edited by Sooil Chun. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

Original reporting in Korean

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