Being a Standup Comedian in North Korea is Absolutely Terrible

The concept of a standup comic in North Korea seems fairly puzzling: while the American media love to make fun of how bafflingly and absurdly out-of-touch and unbelievably, repressively terrible Kim Jong-un (and the late Kim Jong-il) are as dictators, its obvious that North Korean comedians don't have that right — because, oh, you know, they live in a nation in which their human rights are heavily restricted, they have no right to free speech, and the only legal media sources are state-operated.

Offending people is a somewhat integral part of standup, so how does a North Korean comic manage to do their job without offending the wrong person (and possibly incurring some sort of state-mandated punishment)? The answer is by treading very carefully — which is still immensely precarious and difficult to do.

Case in point: Radio Asia reports that Lee Choon Hong, a popular North Korean comedienne, has just been sentenced to an indefinitely period of "hard labor" in a coal mine following a "slip of the tongue" during a performance last month. According to the report, Lee Choon Hong is "known for satirizing aspects of North Korean society by mimicking voices"; during the performance, which was set up by North Korean authorities, she accidentally mentioned "sensitive issues."

A source told Radio Asia that Lee was sent "straight to the coal mine in the middle of her performance." She was nether given permission to return home nor to say goodbye to her family. The source notes that such punishments are typically administered to officials who've made "inappropriate remarks" about the regime; they usually involve an evaluation period of six months. This is the second time Lee has been sentenced to reform work.

According to a former high-ranking North Korean official, Lee is very popular amongst the North Korean people and her punishment has saddened them:

"When people heard Lee’s news, they sympathized with her, saying that as comic storytelling is there to make people laugh, it must be very difficult to avoid going against the policies of the ruling party.”

A Reuters report from 2010 pretty much confirms the impossibility of making people laugh under a hideously repressive regime. Part of North Korea's official programming is a comedy show which is very incorrectly titled "It's So Funny." "It's So Funny" has been airing since the 1970s; in the report, Reuters relayed scenes from one episode, which was all about beans:

It opened with the man soldier saying to the woman soldier he feels better and looks more handsome because he has been taking medicine made from beans.

"If we soldiers see beans, we become happy," he said and laughs. "If we farm in the way the General tells us, we will become happy," she said and laughs.

Few of the soldiers in the audience could be heard laughing.

There was not a single fart joke in the entire episode.

(However, Quartz points out that the "dark jokes shared by defectors" in private are really funny and clever, so take that, "It's So Funny.")

"Popular North Korean Comedienne Sent to Work in Coal Mine Over Slip-Up" [RFA]
Image via AP.