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Munya Chawawa takes on North Korea in new documentary – it follows a long tradition of western media poking fun at the Kim family’s regime

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Munya Chawawa, who is best known for his satirical comedy sketches aimed at educating and entertaining a Gen Z audience, has made a new documentary about Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. How to Survive a Dictator premiered at Sheffield’s DocFest on June 13, and will be broadcast on Channel 4 later this year.

The documentary attempts a fresh take on North Korea. It includes serious interviews with experts, activists and escapees from the country, interspersed with sketches and songs satirising aspects of North Korean political ideology and its leader.

It follows a long tradition of western media poking fun at North Korea, playing to public curiosity around the mysterious, seemingly eccentric, and sometimes bellicose regime of the Kim family.

In one sketch, Chawawa is dressed as Marvel’s Nick Fury. He portrays the North Korean regime as a gangster operation run by “The Revengers”, who are engaged in slavery, money laundering, and narcotics and weapons sales.

Another song parodies Kim as the “Fresh Prince” of North Korea. This is a nod to the fact that he came to the position of supreme leader seemingly out of nowhere as the regime sought to prevent a power vacuum emerging after the health of his father, Kim Jong-il, began to fail.

The use of comedy to portray the North Korean leadership as unhinged, immature and selfish tyrants bent on world domination and destruction is not new. Political comics have in the past depicted a baby Kim with rosy cheeks playing with toy missiles, or sitting on the “naughty chair” in the corner.

These childlike caricatures mock a relatively young leader whose nuclear weapons programme is presented as a self-indulgent vanity project into which he channels vast amounts of the state’s very limited financial resources.

North Korea is not always silent on demeaning depictions of the supreme leader. The 2014 Hollywood film The Interview, which starred Seth Rogan and James Franco, presented a scenario where two American journalists travel to North Korea to assassinate Kim on the premise of conducting an exclusive interview with him.

The darkly comedic “obliteration” of Kim portrayed in the film enraged North Korea. It deemed the film equivalent to an “act of war” and demanded the UN intervene to stop its release. North Korea is then believed to have exercised its disapproval through deploying a massive cyber-attack on Sony Pictures not long afterwards, despite denying direct responsibility.

 

Why do we laugh?

In Chawawa’s documentary, he visits a popular South Korean TV show where North Korean escapees share about their lives in the North, sometimes using humour to add levity to their experiences.

Referring to his own experience growing up under Robert Mugabe’s rule in Zimbabwe, Chawawa notes the cognitive dissonance involved in talking about trauma, violence and dictatorship through comedy. He describes how, for those who have experienced such things, joking about them can be a “coping mechanism”.

But what about those of us in the audience who have not lived under the brutality of authoritarian government? Should we be laughing along? The use of “disparagement humour” is a common device observed by social identity theorists in media commentary that seeks to diminish the danger posed by threatening “others” or “outsiders”.

For example, former US president Donald Trump’s favourite insult for the North Korean leader was “little rocket man”. This sought to downplay Kim’s ability to wage an attack on the US and its allies by belittling his nuclear programme.

But disparagement humour can also smooth the effective transmission of messages because it acts as a kind of mental balm. Chawawa noted in his discussion with the audience at DocFest that his use of satire is a device he hopes will reduce the discomfort younger audiences may otherwise feel around difficult, sad, or anxiety-inducing topics.

Psychological warfare

The use of disparagement humour in commentary on North Korea doesn’t function the same way with all audiences. In May, a North Korean political song broadcast by the government went viral globally on TikTok, including in South Korea.

The song, which was called “Friendly Father”, captured attention for its catchy “Abba-coded tune”, according to the many approving comments from Gen Z listeners.

However, the song was banned by the national media regulator in South Korea. This move is not surprising given the caution with which the South Korean government has always handled North Korean state content.

The 1948 National Security Law bans any content from North Korea from being broadcast or consumed in the South due to an aversion to any material that might “praise, incite or propagate” North Korea’s activities. More recently, comedy T-shirts with Kim’s smiling face printed on them were banned from sale in South Korea for this very reason.

Kim Jong un walking passed a row of missiles with men in military uniform.
North Korean leader Kim Jong un supervising military drills at an undisclosed location in North Korea in April 2024. KCNA / EPA

Some younger South Koreans may feel it is acceptable to laugh at North Korea for the same reasons that western audiences have done so. But many in the South still feel that the threat to national security posed by the North Korean regime is real enough that viewing Kim with levity risks weakening South Korea’s ideological defences.

In the west, the man who leads North Korea will probably remain a target for media mockery, especially as there is a lot that outsiders struggle to understand about him. However, Kim Jong-un is not irrational and has gone to great lengths to ensure the survival of his regime. It would be a mistake not to take him seriously.

Disclosure statement

Sarah A. Son does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.