The Institute for Korean Studies hosted a webinar on humor in North Korean comedy films and its influence on the country’s society on Friday.
Immanuel Kim, an associate professor of Korean literature and culture studies, discussed the cultural effects of comedy films in North Korea addressed in his book, “Laughing North Koreans: The Culture of Comedy Films.” He said North Korea is not seen as a state capable of laughter because the standard perspective is that citizens are “brainwashed” and must “cower” before their government.
Kim said North Korea has comedy films despite its depiction as threatening and having “crazy leadership.”
“When the state began in 1948, we see a long history of not only comedy films but funny stories, jokes and different TV shows that are sit-com style,” Kim said.
He said he wanted to show how North Korea also has a “good sense of humor” through this book. He said while North Korean humor can differ from Western humor, not all North Koreans enjoy the same humor as is true in the United States.
“It’s a matter of taste, and it’s really hard to pinpoint what is funny or what North Koreans find funny,” Kim said.
He said whether North Koreans find comedy films funny or not is “irrelevant” because the films still have a “huge cultural impact” on society.
“It’s not that they run into these movie theaters to get a dose of the political ideology for that week,” Kim said. “No, they go into these movie theaters to watch their favorite actors, actresses and comedians because they recognize these comedians and know that they will be entertained for the next hour.”
He said romantic comedy directors need to keep the “star persona” in mind when producing appealing films so he said male stars require certain features that may not typically line up with Western standards.
“For men, you just need the voice so you don’t have to be fit, you don’t have to have muscles bulging out or the chiseled ‘BTS kind of look’ because that’s not what North Koreans are exactly after,” he said.
Kim said celebrities like Kim Se-yong and Ri Yong-ho have contributed to the cultural effect of comedy.
“I realized there’s a thread across all my chapters and all of the comedy films that I like, and that thread is Kim Se-yong,” he said.
Kim said he is not disregarding the political ideology in these films in his book but focuses on an unexplored aspect of North Korean culture.
“The people recognize these actors as individuals and not just bolts in an ideological machine so to me that’s really fascinating,” he said.
Kim said comedy can act as social criticisms of society, which filmmakers carry out as long as they omit any mention of the leader or the party.
“There’s so much that filmmakers can make fun of that’s waiting like a time bomb to explode,” Kim said. “But, I think we have to give North Korea more time for them to ease and go into making fun of more things.”