Skip to main content
the familiar enemy

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, middle, is seen visiting an army unit in 2012. ‘As scary as he is for the Korean Peninsula, he’s not that scary for anyone else,‘ says Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner.KCNA/Reuters

North Korea comes by its evil status honestly. People are starving, prisoners exiled to gulags, an unelected leader with very bad hair enjoys an extravagant lifestyle while threatening nuclear war against the United States and hanging out with Dennis Rodman.

And yet we can't quite treat Kim Jong-un and his tiny country's cries for attention with the seriousness they demand.

They actually have the bomb, a much-stated willingness to use it and a worrying unpredictability about their political culture. North Korea's near-complete isolation only adds to the appearance of irrationality – they seem to hate us to the point of caricature, but still manage to admire a tattooed NBA rebounder with inexplicable awe.

So why does North Korea, the only Axis of Evil member to come with its own laugh track, not get the fear it deserves? No enemy of the West ranks so high in its ironic pop-culture cachet – kidnapping for propaganda purposes became a running gag in the sitcom 30 Rock; the remake of the high-camp Red Dawn invasion film featured North Koreans in place of a Soviet-Cuban force; Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il, the revered Dear Leader, served as the lead villain in the satirical puppet comedy Team America: World Police. When the state-sponsored Korean Central News Agency recently announced the discovery of a secret unicorn lair in the capital of Pyongyang, the Twitterverse erupted in delighted mockery.

It turned out to be a mistranslation. There were no unicorns. And yet, because it was North Korea, the ultimate unreality seemed completely believable – they're evil, perhaps, but ha-ha evil.

"There's an element of the absurd when you're talking about North Korea," says Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at The Fletcher School in Tufts University.

Clownishness, in a way, may be a reassuring trait in an enemy, a response that diminishes the anxiety of those whom North Korea aims to intimidate. Compare this response to the high seriousness that continues to be generated by al-Qaeda, a much more shifty and unknowable opponent, whose armory doesn't approach the weapons of mass destruction favoured in Pyongyang.

Al-Qaeda is the new kind of evasive enemy while North Korea is a Cold War stock type, ready-made for comic caricature. In the global theatre of fear, we find some small comfort in Kim Jong-un's outmoded style of animosity – in part because his old-fashioned nuclear threat rests on a principle of mutually assured destruction that managed to preserve planetary survival through the high-rhetoric Cold War years.

So there's a simplicity, a familiarity with North Korea that allows us to let our guard down. Their propaganda department threatens that Washington will "be engulfed in a sea of fire" or derides the "venomous swish of skirt" worn by South Korea's female President and it's hard to suppress the laughter – yes, we do realize you can make a mess of the world but your language is so last millennium.

For veterans of the Cold War saw-off, these belligerent threats evoke Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's dire prediction to the West: "We will bury you." And we all know how that turned out.

Khrushchev, points out Prof. Drezner, was not speaking literally. "He actually meant he would bury us through economic competition rather than by raining missiles down on us." North Korea is less nuanced, and appears to lack this same gift for the lively metaphor.

"What Kim Jong-un reminds me of more," says Prof. Drezner, "is one of the minor local characters of the Cold War like Fidel Castro, or one of the James Bond villains – as scary as he is for the Korean Peninsula, he's not that scary for anyone else."

The rhetoric of evil has outdistanced the capability, and Bond-villain connoisseurs can sense that element of exaggeration in North Korea. We've seen it all before, in the movies but also in real life.

"North Korean brinkmanship has been pretty damn predictable for the last couple of decades," agrees Prof. Drezner. And that very predictability is its own form of security, a cue not to take the latest round of rhetoric with the seriousness it begs for.

Judging the severity of a threat comes down to the kind of consequences we imagine will ensue. "When a threat is abstract and poorly defined," says Adam Alter, a professor of marketing and psychology at New York University, " we assess its gravity partly by considering how serious the images associated with the threat make it seem."

And so with North Korea: On the one hand, nuclear destruction, which is serious enough to cause grave concern. On the other hand, a leader who comes across not just as a Bond villain but as a parody of a Bond villain – think the shark-coveting Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers series, and breathe a short sigh of relief.

"You have to assume there's a 50/50 chance that Kim Jong-un has a volcano hiding spot," Prof. Drezner says. "You also have to have an image of him sitting in his volcano redoubt saying, 'I want to have sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads.' "

And thus the world seems a safer place.