Over the years a curious trend has developed in the western media for portraying Kim Jong-un and his father as the butt of all jokes, rather than a serious threat to world stability. This could be down to the fact that access to the country is highly limited, with speculation and humor filling the informational void, writes Andrei Lankov for The Guardian.
Ridiculing North Korea
In the west, the media has developed a penchant for poking fun at the secretive regime, and one way in which they do so is by portraying its leaders as portly, poorly dressed tyrants with questionable haircuts. However it must be said that the clownish image we have created for them can distract from allegations of serious human rights abuses.
At the same time, the dramatic language employed in the official North Korean media makes it hard to take the regime seriously, with insults often sounding comical rather than threatening. It is hard to imagine other nations calling their enemies “rabid dogs,” or accusing former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney of being “a mentally deranged person steeped in the inveterate enmity towards the system in the DPRK”.
Gap in perceptions
How does this international perception match up with that of the average North Korean citizen? Are they aware that their country and its leaders are the subject of ridicule all over the world?
The personality cult of Kim Il-sung was constructed around his supposed international popularity, and the trend continues to this day. Foreign validation of the regime is of paramount importance to the propaganda machine, and North Korea still provides funding to Juche study groups around the world in an attempt to garner support from abroad.
The international groups vary in size, but over the years the government of North Korea has plowed significant sums of money into promoting Kim Il-sung’s ideology. By the late 1970s it had become obvious that kimsongilism was far from being a viable alternative to Leninism or Maoism, and had very few genuine supporters. Subsidies were considerably reduced but not completely discontinued, and foreign supporters are still paraded around Pyongyang on propaganda exercises.
International popularity as a propaganda tool
Despite its lack of genuine foreign converts, international popularity is crucial in keeping the population in line. North Korean media sources consistently publish stories reminding citizens of the high esteem in which their leaders are held. It was reported that meetings were held in Uganda, Pakistan, Congo, Dominican Republic, Russia, Nigeria, Nepal, Benin and South Africa to celebrate Kim Jong-un’s birthday at the end of February, and articles allegedly appeared in newspapers in various countries trumpeting the great achievements of the Kim family.
What your average North Korean does not know is that the majority of events were of a small-scale, and paid for by the North Korean embassies of those countries, and that news stories were carried by marginal leftist publications or paid-for advertisements. Even more preposterously, the population was once told that 450 streets in 100 countries had been named in honor of Kim Il-sung.
One group which does not share the western view of North Korea as a tinpot regime to be made fun of are refugees who managed to escape the country, who understandably have a different perspective on the interests of the Kim dynasty, and can feel offended by the lightheartedness with which the plight of their countrymen is treated.