Quite a few readers have been coming in over the last two days from this New York Times Op-Ed by Adam Johnson, author of the acclaimed The Orphan Master’s Son. Johnson links to the Camp 14 page and asks how anyone could be so tasteless as to post a satirical review of a North Korean concentration camp. Johnson thinks that in the same sense as the maps review something disturbing and inhuman about North Korea, the reactions reveal something disturbing and inhuman about us. Writing at Foreign Policy several days ago, Blaine Harden had also asked, “Should we really be making jokes about North Korean prison camps?” Both pieces are well worth a read in full, and reach slightly different conclusions. I have spent the last week vacillating between those conclusions myself.
As a fan of South Park and those sketchy Untergang parodies on YouTube, I feel underqualified to denounce anyone else’s tasteless sense of humor, but there’s a line that I think these reviews cross. The distinction, I think, is more than the distance of history — no, I don’t think that AIDS became funny after 22.3 years — it is the termination of, and a solution to, the tragedy that clears the emotional barriers to parody. Untergang parodies stop being funny when they so much as allude to the Holocaust, but we can still laugh at Hitler (a) because his manner was comical to us, especially as Bruno Ganz played him, (b) because we destroyed him, and (c) because history’s judgment of Hitler is conclusive. In the case of AIDS, the advent of anti-retrovirals certainly mitigates the risk of fatality for affluent first-world patients who can afford them, though I don’t think even South Park would have parodied AIDS in the context of Africa. You can see how close these things come to a line that isn’t exactly bright.
North Korea, by contrast, is an ongoing tragedy whose particulars are well known — the casual murder of children, the rape of women, the allegations of inhuman experiments and infanticides, the chilling implications of Camp 25’s crematorium, the agonizing wringing of life from (perhaps) hundreds of thousands. Whether you judge this by the depth of its depravity or its per-capita impact, it is as horrible as anything in the history of (in)humanity. The crimes and the victims can’t be seen, of course, so they don’t quite seem real to us. These are also different-looking, different-speaking, far-away people. And because many people are only hearing these things for the first time, they haven’t internalized them yet. Could some of these criticisms be just as true of what Jonathan Swift wrote during the Irish tragedy of his time? Maybe, but Swift had higher motives than snark. Which leads us to the thoughtlessness that prevails throughout our internet culture, though one must hope that it isn’t entirely representative of our broader society.
In the end, what makes these parodies so inappropriate is the failure of liberal global institutions to respond to the tragedy itself. The institutions whose “job” that is — the U.N., the Human Rights Industry, our own State Department — have either been silenced (until very recently) to a whimper by co-defendant China, seized by expedient self-interest, confused by a certain ambivalence that anyone who hated George W. Bush can’t be all bad, or addled by their own individual stupidity. The failure of these institutions and their individual leaders is why the North Korean holocaust won’t end peacefully, and because foreign intervention is neither likely nor in the pecuniary interest of this country, it can only end with a North Korean civil war, along the lines of the one that’s seized Syria. As sad as that may be, it’s probably a lot less sad than the continuation of the status quo. A sufficient number of individuals in free societies could, theoretically, raise sufficient global pressure to alter that status quo and prevent that outcome. Is it too harsh to say that that every individual who elects to laugh passively at a crime that he has some slight power to prevent is also slightly complicit? Maybe not.
When the world’s judgment is as conclusive and effective against the Kim Dynasty as it was against Hitler (or at least Pol Pot), laughter might not seem so dismissive, but then, no one will be laughing anymore.