With an unusual self-deprecating joke, Kim Jong Un shows his vulnerable side


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance to the construction site of apartment houses for educators of Kim Chaek University of Technology in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on Aug. 13. (KCNA/Reuters)

North Korea is not known for its sense of humor. Instead, fiery rhetoric and bellicose bravado dominate state media. When criticizing the United States earlier this year, the Korean Central News Agency said the country was "the world's worst human right abuser and tundra of a human being's rights to existence." And when Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of leader Kim Jong Un, was executed as a traitor last year, the KCNA described him as "despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog."

In contrast, the North Korean people and Kim himself are held up as exemplars of dignified, noble existence. In photographs, North Korean citizens are always shown smiling or even crying tears of joy as they meet Kim. Reaction to anything that questions this can be fierce. When Seth Rogan and James Franco pretended to assassinate Kim in a recent movie, North Korea threatened a "merciless counter-measure."

Given this context, a simple, self-deprecating joke from Kim seems like a striking divergence.

State newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported this week that Kim was at a hospital in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, when he met a 5-year-old boy who had been orphaned. Kim asked the boy what he was doing. The boy explained he had been watching Kim, his dear leader, on a television set.

According to a translation from Yonhap News, Kim responded dryly: "It must have been no fun."

The comments, apparently made in May but only reported Tuesday, would be no big deal if they happened in any other country. But in North Korea, the admission that Kim's heavily stage-managed antics could be a little boring is somewhat of a big deal. Over recent years, news of underground political humor in North Korea has surfaced, some even taking direct aim at Kim Jong Un.

There have also been reports in the past that suggested that North Korea's leaders did indeed have moments of self-doubt. Before his death, South Korean newspapers reported that Kim Jong Il had suffered from depression. According to Yonhap, the older Kim once remarked when watching a parade in his honor: "It's all fake."

What's really remarkable about this self-deprecating joke, however, is that it appeared in North Korea's most important state newspaper – a moment of levity made it into the propaganda. It is unclear whether it was deliberate.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.

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