“Joke or no joke”

There is a long, colourful and occasionally hilarious tradition of jokes going wrong in the UK. From Billy Connolly’s Ken Bigley joke to the Andrew Sachs/Jonathan Ross incident, there is a tipping point when it comes to jokes.  Push it right up to the edge of what is acceptable and you will often get the heartiest laughs…but if you stray over that line, it can get very ugly indeed.

Last week in Korea, news emerged of a young man who had strayed over a very different line in telling his own kind of joke, and it really has got ugly for him.  To the displeasure of South Korean officials, South Korean Park Jeung Geun retweeted the following message from the official North Korean twitter account:

Long live Kim Jong-Il”

Park faces up to 7 years in prison for his tweet, which was deemed to ‘benefit the enemy’, according to the South Korean ‘National Security Law’.  Park has certainly crossed a line of some kind; but in a different way, it seems that so too have the South Korean officials.  In their response to what actually appears to be a well-intentioned joke you could say that they have, ideologically speaking, crossed the DMZ and taken up the kind of totalitarian stance that the ‘West’ expects from North Korea themselves.

When we come to examine the issue itself, for a ‘true Brit’ the big question is obviously this: was Park actually joking?  In Britain, to know that something is a joke is to place it in a sphere that very nearly exists completely beyond the realm of politics, social relations and good taste.  If Park wasn’t joking then this would swing our favour towards the South Korean government.  His tweet would be literally showing solidarity with North Korea: and after all we shouldn’t forget that North Korea and South Korea are still ‘technically’ at war.

However, all the evidence seems to suggest that he was joking.  A big clue is that Kim Jong-Il is dead – so one very plausible interpretation of Park’s tweet is that he was ironically ridiculing the idea of wishing a long life on a dead, reviled dictator.  In a different tweet, Park, a photographer, had also altered a North Korean propaganda poster to feature himself, looking glum and holding a bottle of whisky instead of a gun (see it here).  It would seem that whatever the case, Park wasn’t taking things too seriously.  Here’s what Park offered by means of explanation for his actions:

My intention was to lampoon North Korea’s leaders for a joke – I did it for fun.

At this stage it seems reasonable to conclude that Park was in fact joking and that he wasn’t attempting to endorse solidarity with North Korea.  There is of course a chance that he is being exceptionally sly and simply masquerading as a silly smarty-pants 24 year old photographer; but then again, maybe the Duke of Edinburgh is secretly a UN Goodwill Ambassador.  Again, at this point I think it’s reasonable, from a British perspective, to believe that Park was just joking.  However, and this is where it gets really interesting, South Korean officials gave the following perspective (according to The New York Times):

“Prosecutors charged that joke or no joke, Mr. Park’s Twitter account served as a tool to spread North Korean propaganda.”

This is almost incomprehensible to our comedy soaked ears we can accept that perhaps the intention to create humour isn’t THE main factor, but surely it is something to be considered nevertheless?  What if Park was just ‘having a laugh’?  The fact that Park’s tweets and photoshopped images appear to be mocking North Korea seems to have escaped South Korean prosecutors entirely.  If Park was indeed joking it is to be hoped for his sake that the factor of his authorial intent comes into it, if only to lessen the length of his potential sentence.

The sanctity of the joke in British culture often makes us keen to side with the joker in cases such as Park Jeung Geun’s.  We pride ourselves on our sophisticated sense of humour, it’s wide berth and supposedly higher intellectual status than the slapstick of continental Europe, for example: so perhaps we loftily sometimes feel that we have the moral high ground when other countries ‘don’t get it’.  But, and to state the obvious: other countries DO have different cultures and senses of humour that we Brits, in our all-knowingness, perhaps sometimes do not fully comprehend.

The difficulty of applying this liberal mode of thought when it comes to South Korea is that we regard South Korea as being somewhat ‘westernised’.  Park seems to be making a very ‘western’ kind of joke; and yet he is a South Korean.  The youth and future of South Korea are becoming westernised – fast food and the accompanying child obesity problem is one symptom of the cultural transition that is occurring.  With this cultural transition comes humour – and the internet is undoubtedly the zone where this cultural interchange is at its peak.  So should Park’s ironic tweet be judged by liberal Western humour or conservative South Korean law?  The jury is out.

The Park Jeung Geun incident not only highlights the tensions that exist in the Korean peninsula, but also the gulf in culture that exists between Korea and the ‘Western’ world.  It is perhaps impossible for us to understand this case from a South Korean perspective; and it is perhaps impossible for South Korean officials to fully understand our shock at what we might see as incredibly stern punishment for a minor offence.  As always, I feel that the onus that is on us is to seek greater understanding of the Korean peninsula as a whole; and more importantly, to avoid the temerity of judging without a fuller cultural understanding. Particularly in my case because I live here.

“And the shame was on the other side.”

About castrouroboros

Grievous Sense Of Humour
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7 Responses to “Joke or no joke”

  1. Kieran says:

    It seems like living in the orient has made a cultural relativist of you! Just be cautious not to have the will of present political elites too deeply embedded in what you consider the general “culture” – a slippery concept at the best of times. I’d say broader political trends are at play here rather than anything quintessentially Korean. With SK in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ (A phrase first deployed in relation to those committed to preventing NK cooking nukes, I believe) I’d say this is no more typical of Korean culture than Guantanamo Bay is of American culture.

    To think poor Mr Park was brave or foolish to make such a joke in a legal framework that restricts freedom of expression is quite different from maintaining that his prosecution is ludicrous. If the legal enforcers and politicians don’t see harmless humour in this instance then it just serves to show how distant they are from those they preside over. Nothing new there.

    This is surely just another repeat of a post 9/11 trend that has been seen in Britain http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-11736785
    and with alarming frequency in the US http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16810312

    Good old British sense of humour!

    Mr Park’s Tweet certainly displays a greater flare for subtlety and satire, which sadly is matched by the acute sensitivity SK’s leaders have on this subject. It certainly highlights how public social networking and a tetchy, nervous State aren’t the best of bed fellows.
    “You’re supposed to be scared about this! Why aren’t you scared? This is no time for jokes!”

    You’re certainly correct that in Britain we view the “right” to have a josh as sacred to all that we are. The “I’m only pulling your leg” spirit I think is more central to contemporary Britishness than any Bulldog Spirit, I’d say. Humour is a great leveller, just look at the role it’s played in practically obliterating any notions of class deference in British society over the past century. Not that we’re much better off for it – comedy itself has now become a safe commodity, as Michael McIntyre’s Hampstead palace contests.

    For me the case in point doesn’t so much throw up the issue of intra-peninsula tensions but rather domestic South Korean tension, which as you say has a definite generational factor. The ultra-nationalist heart of South Korean establishment is a historical contingency, a Cold-War relic. The West doesn’t have a monopoly on liberal thought and becoming cosmetically “Westernised” isn’t the best indication of a desire for freedom. Resistance has always been there, sadly it has grown hard to picture it these days unless it’s wearing a baseball cap and converse.

    Poor Mr Park. Whichever way you look at it, he was undoubtedly just ‘having a laugh’. And it was quite funny. And for that he has my total sympathy. But then again, I am British…

    • I know what you mean about confusing the current politics of a country with definitive aspects of a culture, it’s a worthy cautionary point.

      I wouldn’t say that it’s just another repeat of a post 9/11 trend really – I think that the incident is Korean in the same sense that Guantanamo Bay IS American. Both phenomenons may be global in nature, but they are flavoured by the country in which they take place, that’s my perspective. 9/11 is all-encompassing, but there is room for political events to have their own character after taking the consequences of that disaster into account.

      I concur about it highlighting domestic tension more than intra-peninsular concerns, but I suppose what I was trying to draw attention to was that North Korea is perhaps more similar to South Korea than we are perhaps aware. The same nationalist heart of South Korea is shared, to a certain extent, with North Korea. The sheer weight of the common history that the two countries share must connect the two states more than we imagine. The footage of North Korea that we see in the UK might as well have Darth Vader’s theme played over the top, whereas Seoul is regarded as a sophisticated mega-city along with New York, London, Paris et al.

      I’ll definitely be following this, really hope he doesn’t get rapped over the knuckles too hard!

      EDIT: I realise Guantanamo isn’t in the USA but it’s essentially an American endeavour…made a right hash of making that point.

      • Kieran says:

        It’s effectively American soil so your point still stands.

        On the issue of media portrayals of NK and SK, I’d say that, to be fair, the foreign press doesn’t really have much leeway as all they can ever show is state created propaganda videos or the odd bit of shaky camera phone footage smuggled out. Whereas SK is by all accounts as functioning a democracy as anywhere else. That’s not to say there wouldnt be some bias were the NK regime not quite so cripplingly oppressive, but there is undoubtedly a huge gulf between the two. I suppose the unifying factor historically is the overtly militaristic core of national identity, which is indeed hard for us to comprehend.

        As an aside, this is something South Korea also shares with Turkey, which also comes with what we would consider draconian restrictions on freedom of speech. I only mention this because the two countries have exceptionally close relations, Turkey was full of Korean tourists when I was there. Some even claim the languages share the same origin but I wasnt as convinced on that one.

  2. Beth Genghis says:

    There is a really interesting debate about whether judgements of a speaker or publisher should be based on their intention, the public meaning of the words or how they were taken. I really like some of the Iris Young stuff on the fact that a speaker doesn’t intend to reproduce sexist or racist or agist stereotypes or treat an individual in a way they find offensive – does not mean that they did not do anything wrong and shouldn’t be corrected. Young thinks that if someone unintentionally causes offence by acting on a stereotype and therefore reproduces a culture of objectionable treatment they are at fault and should be corrected but that they should not be blamed.

    In the uk if some one tweeted a joke that if taken seriously falls foul of our laws on speach and publication they may still be charged. Especially if some people did take it that way. For example, if their joke incited racial hatred I can imagine a case being brought. It would be irresponsible to do something like that.

    What is illegal in terms of speech is different in the Uk. There have been recent cases of people being jailed for posting plans to riot on facebook – despite the fact no riot took place. Muslims against crusades got banned as a group after some public expressions of their beliefs. Was what they were guilty of publicly supporting an enemy? Poppy burning got their members fined.

    I just think the legal situation in South Korea and the UK with regards to imprisonment for certain speech acts aren’t that different. What does that tell us? Not alot I guess.

    You’re interested in understanding the context of the judgement rather than judging it as if it were part of a british context -which makes sense. It is important to avoid uninformed judgements. You probably don’t think there’s much point trying to judge it at all.

    I’d be interested to know what public reaction to the ruling has been? Do you think there is a gulf between the judgements of younger and older koreans on these issues?

  3. Beth Genghis says:

    Thinking about it jokes about supporting Britains enemies would definately be tolerated where as genuine vocal public support is what is cracked down on. There does seem to be a clear distinction in treatment.

  4. Kieran says:

    Let’s face it, he should have just tweeted this like everyone else…

  5. Pingback: “Joke or no joke”: Update | Castrouroboros

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