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.”