Laugh, and the World Laughs With You

Who’s the most dangerous man on the Korean peninsula right now?   If your answer was Kim Jong-il, you’ve revealed yourself to be a conventional thinker, a dupe of running-dog imperialist propaganda — and just plain wrong.   That’s because the real threat to established order in the Hermit Kingdom isn’t some pudgy old guy with inexorable kidney failure, a volatile temper and a half-assed nuclear weapons program, it’s an angry young(ish) satirist with a nationwide broadband podcast audience.  Think Jon Stewart plus kimchi — and minus the AIPAC scriptwriting crew.

credit: Matt Douma

Well, OK:  maybe not so young.   Kim Ou-joon is forty-two, and as an Internet veteran with more than a decade of web-based comedy behind him, he’s no flash-in-the-pan overnight sensation.

In 1998, Kim launched a political parody website called Daily Tackle, where he posted images showing the heads of politicians grafted onto the bodies of bikini-clad women.

Now, his free weekly audio podcast “I’m a Weasel” …

… ranks as the world’s most popular political podcast, with 2 million weekly downloads.  Kim uses digital media –in a format that is equal parts talk show, rant session and comedy skits–  to rally disenfranchised youths in a challenge to the status quo, and caught the establishment flat-footed.  The [podcast refers] to Lee Myung-bak as “His Highness” and “our morally perfect president.”  One recurring character belittles Lee, who is a Protestant church elder, by singing bawdy songs to the tune of church hymns.

Kim’s humor is considered [outrageous] in a nation where anyone younger than 40 is expected to respect their elders. That explains why “I’m a Weasel” has triggered a political backlash, even legal repercussions.   …  Analysts say Kim was largely responsible for the decisive turnout of young voters in Seoul’s recent mayoral election, in which the ruling Grand National Party candidate was soundly defeated by a little-known left-wing activist [Park Won-soon].
   [As a result,] Kim and his co-hosts have been indicted for allegedly spreading false information that the ruling party’s unsuccessful [female] candidate in the mayoral race ran up a $100,000 annual bill at a skin-care clinic.

The GNP’s approach to digital media is more traditionalist:  in addition to its influence with major print and broadcast media outlets, it employs its own version of the Chinese “water army” to flood online discussion boards with messages favorable to the party and its minions.   However, this massive cyber-deployment appears to have been outflanked and outmaneuvered by dissident voices who are using the growth of mobile broadband to open new communication pathways among the unwired masses.   All comedy involves the loss of dignity, so political parody accelerates the process of replacing deference to power with contempt and outright defiance.  Which is a good thing for humanity in general.

Satire or not, things don’t look so good for the GNP in next year’s Presidential election.  Seoul and Gyeonggi Province (with almost half the country’s population) are customarily the swing districts in national elections, so a candidate from GNP’s Daegu or Busan strongholds just ain’t gonna cut it.  Park Geun-hye has been trying to burnish her international credentials among Korea’s America-oriented elite (most recently with her byline over a ghost-written policy piece in this month’s edition of Foreign Affairs), but that approach isn’t going to win many votes among the young and restless.  Gyeonggi governor Kim Moon-su is younger and has labor-activist credentials that he doesn’t hesitate to emphasize:  he may end up as the GNP candidate if Korean chaebol oligarchs can be assured that he’s sufficiently pliable.

Regardless of how next year’s presidential election turns out, Lunghu has a warning for Korea-watchers:  note the resemblance of Kim Ou-joon to one of Choi Min-sik‘s more memorable portrayals, and consider the possibility that ‘Old Boy‘ is less a cinematic fiction about a single character than a prescient parable about an entire nation.


Evergreen Old Boy


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