It is very hard to describe the experience of visiting the Kumsusan Palace in Pyongyang. The security going in. The women standing around as permanent official mourners. The special railway stop to file people through.
As you go inside the monstrously large building, it’s almost a relief to get into the climate controlled space. There is a long ride on a travelator that slowly takes you into the palace. As you move slowly along, Korean citizens, arranged by work or military unit slowly travel past you in the opposite direction. They have just finished their mandatory visit of mourning and are trying to figure you out as much as you are them.
When you finish this part, your shoes are cleaned by a rotating machine, which you walk over. Up an escalator, through a marble palace, around the stairs guarded by the tallest men the regime could find, and into an elevator with the security services.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Following that, a long hall, with two statues of significant size of each of the leaders. Then you are marched in a line – no opportunity to control is forgone – through a small room that blow-dries your clothes to remove dust. You are meeting the president after all. Eventually you enter a darkly lit room, so much cleaner than anything in Beijing, where the eternal president is on display. Then there is a museum, awards, prizes, tribute. Then a room with a map of everywhere he travelled, following that his train, then his car, and then finally after all of that, you do it all again for Kim Jong Il, the Eternal Party Secretary.
There are only two types of relief available to you, the visitor. Refuse to bow, okay for a Westerner but suicide for a citizen of the country with no way out. The other, satire. As you approach Kim Jong-il, lying in state, still in office, you wonder, did they stretch him out when he died? He looks taller than he ought to be. His uniforms, on display, are clearly too large for him. And a human rights award from Ceausescu? What is that about? How am I supposed to take that seriously? Then someone says “he looks lonely”… at that point control evaporates, you smile and for a second the regime is powerless.
Humor, even bad humor, is a knife through the heart of control. No one ever claimed the Moustache Brothers are that funny, but they are certainly brave. Lampooning a military junta from their little space in Mandalay. A government that looks ridiculous has no power and North Korea is almost impossible to parody, they are a reduction to the absurd of their own concept. This, however, has not always been the case.
There was a point where Kim Il-sung was quite a popular man in the wider world. In reality, he was a brutal tyrant who sold his people a suicidal lie of self-reliance. At the time, such a government was not considered particularly exceptional. North Korea was brutal and terrible but it was not yet ridiculous.
Over time, similar states went extinct or moderated, leaving Pyongyang as a strange relic of an earlier time. To visit is to feel like one is visiting a planet from the Enterprise, a less advanced one, disconnected from anything in your experience. While this impression is not inaccurate, it also entirely true that the regime is utterly normal, to itself. They might be in on the joke but they would never let you know that.
One day this sort of government won’t exist anymore. It will be history and we will pretend that it has nothing to do with us. We will distance ourselves from the very human reality of that state and its terrible government. And part of the process of rejecting it, is to parody and to humiliate. Stand in the travel chart room of Kim Il-sung, and you can see he was quite well traveled. In the one dedicated to Kim Jong-il, there are far fewer trips. For the grandson, his travel board might have to include his time as a student in Switzerland, else it will look quite pathetic.
It is not the regime that has changed, it’s the world around it. That world has steadily rejected it. Some still support its continued existence but even they know it is a relic, a cautionary tale for autocracy.
In contemporary North Korea, foreign media is highly sought after. Some watch Die Another Day, where the North is parodied in a fashion only Bond could. Continuing to define ourselves in opposition to this state, showing people on the ground our contempt for the backwardness of their government, is an important part of them grasping the truth that they live in a awful place that is also awfully abnormal.
The Interview is most likely going to be a horrible movie but it is another signpost on the way to the complete irrelevance of the sort of government Pyongyang earnestly clings to. Making it was important, releasing it even more so. The regime could be left to itself, that is an argument for another time, but it should not be allowed to push its norms onto us. When we laugh at them, they have no control over us. The only sure method of actually destroying totalitarianism is to make it so ridiculous that people laugh at the idea of its existence.
Scorn is a powerful international norm. Although states have to maintain a level of political normalcy, individuals do not. North Korea did not become ridiculous because outside governments imposed that definition upon them. Rather, it was Robin Williams talking about Kim Jong-il and his “big boy glasses,” or it was the crew of South Park writing “I’m so lonely.” Although those statements do not convey the horror of the camps, the lack of food generally, and the oppressive atmosphere, they do make it appear abnormal and inappropriate. It has the power to cut down the men that build statues, making their largest images of power a liability. After The Great Dictator, no one will ever watch Triumph of the Will the same way again. That is an encouraging development.
Robert Potter is currently assisting with research at the Kennedy School. Previously he was a visiting scholar at Columbia and a student at Cornell. He took part in a research program in North Korea and China in 2013.