I was invited out to coffee by a new friend last weekend, a very nice fellow writer with an interest in North Korea. She’d seen me prattling on about the good ol’ DPRK on Twitter and asked me if I’d like to meet up sometime.
It ended up being a really interesting conversation. She’s American, but has family from Korea and talking to her about North Korea was eye opening in many ways.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway I got from the conversation was when we were talking about North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. I made a joke (that was not really a joke) about how he’s the only fat person in North Korea and how that makes me so sad. That he can be living large (literally) while the people he’s responsible for starve.
I got the impression from her that she didn’t appreciate my joke, though she didn’t say anything right out loud about it. She’s no fan of North Korea’s fearless leader, but I think the disrespect was unwelcome. I felt chagrined at my lack of respect and brought it up, and we started talking about respect in America. Or, rather, lack of it.
It’s interesting how we’ve made a culture of disrespect. It doesn’t really matter who we’re making fun of (I can think of only a couple things that are verboten to mock). If we can, we will.
One thing I was wondering about, though, was what is it about Kim Jong Un that is so easily mockable? Is it the fact that making fun of him in his country is enough to send you to one of many prison camps? (Prison camps that his government continues to deny exist even though they’re plainly visible in satellite photos) Is it the fact that his country vilifies us even while it takes our food aid? Is it the over-the-top propaganda that reads like Mad Libs?
Personally, I think it’s the foreignness of it all. I think the idea of a country that forbids its citizens from having opinions contrary to one guy is anathema to most Americans. But, it could also be the Mad Libs propaganda.
Either way, the conversation was illuminating. It gave me pause to try to examine my own behavior in a different way. To look at making fun of Kim Jong Un as something weird instead of something expected.
I think this is the value of traveling and meeting people from other cultures. There’s a real danger, I think, in becoming too steeped in one attitude.