The Laughingstock Next Door
How the Chinese are using Kim Jong Un's antics to mock their own leaders.
BEIJING — North Korea’s latest nuclear test may have stirred alarm in Washington, but its intimidation effect seems to have been lost on much of the Chinese web universe, which largely saw the announcement as a joke. “He’s so naughty!” chided one web user, while another suggested that the resulting earthquake came from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un eating too much and falling on his posterior.
It wasn’t the first time Kim had been the butt of jokes in China. After North Korea’s successful missile launch on Dec. 12, many expressed joy and pride on behalf of the North Korean masses. “The brigade members plowing the hills of Seipo County were so inspired by the successful launch of the second Earth observation satellite that they opened up thousands of hectares of wasteland in just a few days,” one message from a popular satirist nicknamed Miss Choi in Pyongyang read, pretending to be oblivious to North Korea’s failed rocket launch test in April. “Big Brother [China], please step up your effort, or we will surpass you!”
Liu Bin, a journalist at China’s independent-minded newspaper Southern Weekly, told me he is uncomfortable with all the joking around. “What is there to laugh about?” Liu wondered. “Isn’t laughing at North Korea like the pot calling the kettle black?”
That’s exactly the point. Over the past few years, more than 100 North Korea-related satire accounts have emerged on Sina Weibo, managed by self-proclaimed North Korean patriots. They post messages glorifying the Kim regime in an extravagant propaganda style that invites jeers and ridicules from commenters who may or may not have gotten the joke: The real targets, of course, are China and the Chinese Communist Party.
The most popular account, “Writer Choi Seongho,” has 600,000 followers. In his Weibo biography and in his posts, Choi claims to be a North Korean journalist based in China with his heart “tied to Pyongyang”; in a private message, he told me he is a North Korean defector from a “special family” and that he went to high school in China. Whatever the truth, most of his followers probably take him to be Chinese, for he posts hilarious messages in flawless Mandarin, which, while ostensibly mocking North Korea, often make for pitch-perfect satire of China.
After the one-year anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s Dec. 17, 2011 funeral, for instance, Choi posted a photo of the weeping crowds with the message: “Could you let me know if there is a second leader in this world that was so beloved by his people?” “Your [leader] was the second, guess who was the first?” a user, catching Choi’s allusion to the hysteria that characterized former Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s funeral in 1976, answered wryly.
After the 2012 Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to Chinese writer Mo Yan in October, Choi wrote: “The Nobel Prize is not a big deal. Starting from next year, North Korea will offer the Kim Jong Il Prize for progressive figures all over the world to compete!” Here was another wry allusion to China: In 2010, immediately after the Nobel committee awarded the Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, an embarrassed and enraged group of patriotic Chinese established their own award. Named the Confucius Peace Prize, it drew mockery in China for choosing Russian President Vladimir Putin as its 2011 recipient. Choi’s followers got the joke.
To those who tease him for his hyperbolic patriotism, Choi responds with feigned seriousness: “Watch your tone! The Internet is not a space beyond the law,” a reference to the now-notorious title of a December editorial published in The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, that called for stricter Internet censorship. To those who accuse him of propagandizing for the Kim regime, he responds: “My colleague editor Hu in our Hu-Choi editorial department is cursed by netizens all over everyday, but he still posts messages on Weibo with great composure” — an unmistakable jibe at Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a nationalist Chinese tabloid, and a frequent target of digital slings and arrows on Weibo.
A land that remains stubbornly isolated, perpetually relevant, and eternally weird, North Korea makes an appealing subject for satirists all over the world, from comedian Andy Borowitz, who tweets as @KimJongNumberUn (bio: “I used to be an unemployed twentysomething still living at home. Now I have nuclear weapons. It’s all good, yo.”) to North Korean propaganda artist-turned-defector Song Byeok, who paints subversive pictures depicting Kim Jong Il as Marilyn Monroe in her famous subway grate scene, or as a loving father surrounded by barefoot, starving children.
In China, however, satirists and the public seem to embrace the subject with particular enthusiasm: Besides Choi, other “North Korean patriots” such as Miss Choi in Pyongyang, Pyongyang Art Troupe Member Kim Ranhui, and Park Chunghwan in Pyongyang have also launched themselves to Weibo fame by professing their undying love for the Great Leader. One of the most watched send-ups of Kim Jong Un, dubbed Fat Kim the Third by web users, is a stand-up routine in which a comedian sharing Kim’s physique parades around the stage and complains about territorial disputes. The Chinese public gleefully indulges itself in the thrill of ridiculing the communist dictatorship next door, as China’s strict censorship has made it difficult for them even to search for some of their own leaders’ names online.
Satirists like Choi acknowledge this psychology and cater their work to it. “I give [the Chinese public] an outlet because I know they need to pour out their feelings to me,” Choi told me. “They live under an authoritarian regime in which they will get punished for criticizing their own officials. They won’t, however, if they criticize” North Korean leaders.
North Korea today still shares more in common with China than most Chinese would like to admit. In a June 2010 essay titled “Orphan of Asia,” Han Han, one of China’s most influential social critics, described his feeling toward North Korea as “a straggler looking back sympathetically at someone trailing even further behind.” A 2007 film made by Chinese filmmaker Hu Ge named 007 vs. Man in Black has been viewed online 3.7 million times. It tells the story of a secret agent working for a totalitarian state (similar to North Korea) setting out on a mission to procure a bottle of Hennessy XO, supposedly Kim Jong Il’s favorite beverage, for the “great king.” The agent comes to China, where, motivated by his love for the king and the spirit of self-reliance, he overcomes great difficulties and accomplishes the mission. When he brings the liquor home and serves it, however, the king dies of poisoning, for the alcohol turns out to be an adulterated product sold illegally in the Chinese black market.
In a public sphere as tightly controlled as China’s, in which a harmless political parody on Weibo can land a citizen in a month-long detention, North Korea-related satires have opened up precious room for the Chinese public to vent its frustration with own domestic politics. But sometimes, the jokes go too far for nationalist Weibo users. One recent Choi post, for example, seems to have touched a raw nerve of many of his followers. Above a picture of a dilapidated train cart, he wrote: “North Korea did not, and does not plan to build a high-speed rail system, because we do not have billions for them to embezzle,” alluding to the gargantuan corruption associated with China’s high-speed rail construction project. Some web users scolded: “Get out!” (“My followers are all very patriotic,” Choi explained. “I can satirize some bad things, but there is a line I am not allowed to cross. When I crossed that line in their heart, I always just had to delete those messages.”)
What makes Choi’s job easier is the Chinese media, which sometimes treats North Korea as a respected ally. This can cause embarrassment: In late November, the U.S. satirical newspaper The Onion announced its decision to name Kim Jong Un the “sexiest man alive” for his “devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame.”
Evidently failing to recognize the parody, People’s Daily Online, the website affiliated with the Communist Party’s official newspaper, endorsed the nomination by citing the Onion article and posting a 55-photograph slide show of Kim Jong Un on its website. Choi rushed to express his support. “The highest commander is much more handsome and fashionable than the aged cadres around him, isn’t he?” he said. “Editors at People’s Daily Online have spoken the mind of people all over the world!”