Why Do We Laugh at North Korea but Fear Iran?

There's something about Kim Jong Un that makes Americans mock his threats.
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visits the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum where historic objects and models are displayed, on March 24, 2013. (Reuters)

In the United States, we make fun of Kim Jong Un and the North Korean regime's over-the-top propaganda machine. The regime may have launched a massive cyberattack on South Korean banks and TV stations last month, but we were circumspect that they were capable of such a thing. When former basketball player Dennis Rodman visited the country in February we giggled. How silly, we thought. Kim Jong Un is a Dennis Rodman fan - how out of touch! Soon after, a video emerged from North Korean state television showing Kim welcomed by jubilant masses of soldiers sprinting to welcome him as he visited a posting from whence rockets were launched in a brief 2010 skirmish with South Korea.

A man starves his own people and threatens to start a nuclear war, and Americans laugh. What a bizarre thing to do.

Again we chuckled at how staged it seemed. Just a week or so previous, a propaganda video came out showing images of Barack Obama and American troops on fire, and just before that, a sleeping Korean dreaming about a rocket destroying an American city. At these, we guffawed. We mocked the use of "We Are the World" and music from the video game Call of Duty as a soundtrack; we called one video " bizarre from start to finish"; " hilarious and disturbing "; "hilariously low-rent"; " cartoonish ." When the United States beefed up its missile defense network in California and Alaska to protect from a possible North Korean attack, we noted they wouldn't have the brains to actually hit us, and asserted that " no one's taking them that seriously." The propaganda, the rhetoric, it's all seen as a grand joke. Desperate, harmless hyperbole from a scorned and neutered country.

A man starves his own people and threatens to start a nuclear war, and Americans laugh. What a bizarre thing to do.

Meanwhile, we shirk in fear at the unhinged other leg of former President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" tripod: Iran. Unlike North Korea, we treat Iran as a legitimate threat. In Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's full-day confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the word "Iran" was mentioned more than 170 times. "North Korea" was mentioned 10. During the foreign policy-focused debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney last October, Iran came up nearly 50 times, and was the subject of multiple questions. North Korea was mentioned just once, as part of a series of other challenges facing the U.S., in the same breath as the trade deficit with China.

It's not that Americans like the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or don't actively consider the hermit state a threat. It's actually the country's second least-favored , right after Iran, and equal numbers call North Korean and Iranian developments of nuclear weapons a "critical threat." Of course, North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and Iran doesn't. One might think that the country with a bomb - with whom we are still technically at war, no less -- would be more of a threat than the country without one, but at least judging by the way we talk about them, that's not the case. Why do we consider North Korea to be such a joke?

Partly it's the way they present themselves. North Korea is a relatively small nation with leaders who come across as stereotypically incompetent Bond villains: uniformly dressed, tasteless but expensive cliché obsessions, physically unintimidating, with every major attack blowing up in their face like Wile E. Coyote. The Kim family does not produce tall or physically gifted men, nor exceptionally handsome ones. They are also Asian, which connotes a whole set of racist stereotypes, none of them necessarily terror-inspiring. Iran, meanwhile, is a Muslim nation, and for obvious but unfortunate reasons it's easier to stoke public fears of Muslim fanaticism than Northeast Asian nationalism.

We also know less about the D.P.R.K. and Kim Jong Un. Basic details about his age (probably 30), marital status (he's been seen around with a pretty girl , probably his wife) and children (he may have just had a kid) have only recently become clear. His nuclear policy is even murkier. When the senior Kim died in late 2011, Korea-watchers were hopeful that the country might be entering a new age of governance, maybe under a coalition of leaders who would exert unseen pressure on Kim to open the country more. That didn't happen, obviously. Still, though, we don't quite know what to expect from Kim, who has at least inherited his father's inscrutability. "Nobody knows what he has planned, what he is thinking or contemplating doing or why the North Koreans are tripling down on their rhetoric," an unnamed senior administration official told CNN last month.

That should be scary, yet we're unfazed. A top Google autocomplete option for "North Korea" is "North Korea Unicorn," a reference to a late November story from the regime's state-run media that reported the discovery of an ancient unicorn layer below Pyongyang, which " proves that Pyongyang was a capital city of Ancient Korea..." It's exactly the kind of self-peddled hagiography America loves to laugh at: a childish tale a deluded country tells about its own greatness.

It's also partly matter of geography. Despite claims by the North Korean regime, most experts agree that their rockets probably cannot reach the American mainland. And even if they could, there's a lot of space and time over the Pacific Ocean for the military to shoot it down. Other countries, especially our allies in the region, don't treat the regime so lightly. South Korean and Japanese citizens tend to view the North as an existential threat, as we might if the Kims were sitting in Mexico City or Ottawa.

As for Iran, on the other hand, there's the Israel factor. We might not be directly in Iran's neighborhood, but Israel is, and the particular dynamics of the US-Israel relationship and Israel's oft-stated willingness to preemptively strike Iranian nuclear sites makes that tension seem more urgent. In Jerusalem, Obama reiterated the United States' "unshakeable support" for Israel, and U.S. foreign policy typically regards Israel as the bastion of Western influence in the Middle East.

We got used to the North Koreans being awful, but just not awful enough to merit a major military response. We're tired of it.

There's also the fear that Iranian development of a nuclear weapon would inspire Saudi Arabia and other countries in the neighborhood to seek one of their own. South Korea and Japan accept the United States' umbrella of protection as a safeguard against the North; countries in the Middle East are less willing to rely on us to protect them from Iran. Western powers worry about an Iranian nuclear weapon turning into a Middle Eastern arms race.

Meanwhile, North Korea has been a constant threat. When most tyrants die, their legacy dies with them. Usually the people revolt or a new leader is put in power or a war unsettles the regime to push it this way or that. In North Korea, the son carries on just as the father did, and we've come to expect more or less the same behavior. Though the North recently claimed to abandon the armistice treaty, troops on the Korean Peninsula haven't seemed to notice much of a difference. There are still Americans lined up along the Demilitarized Zone- thousands of them. A Defense Department official explained to Foreign Policy, "We are always ready to go to war on the Korean Peninsula within a matter of hours," and the New York Times' David Sanger explained on Face the Nation, "The armistice was signed 60 years ago and it's been an on and off thing ever since with violations and so forth." The constant threat makes the highs and lows much more muted. Unlike Iran, which has lively internal politics and saw massive protests just a few years ago, North Korea is committed to the same track for the foreseeable future. In that context, each new inflammatory remark or island bombardment seems more or less in line with the long-standing behavior. It's just more of the same.

Also, because they've been doing this for a long time, we expect them to know not to cross the ultimate line, for fear of their own survival. Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the Council on Foreign Relations that it was a matter of rationality: "Iran has this patina, at least, of this super-religious extreme folks that might actually not care if they were wiped out in response to one of their attacks. There are some folks in Iran who ... might actually care less ... than the North Koreans do, because the North Koreans care only about regime-serving." Unlike Iran, where leaders value religion more than the state, North Korea cares too much about its own survival to ever actually use its bomb.

Put another way, we mock them because the Kim regime, more than any other, has remained steadfast in its vehement rejection of American hegemony without interruption and longer than any other current regime - and because we know they intend to keep it up. We got used to the North Koreans being awful, but just not awful enough to merit a major military response. We're tired of it. It's hard to tell a new story when nothing changes, and in North Korea not much has changed in years. Despite diplomats' occasional perceptions of openings, it would be charitable to say we're even back to square one in changing their behavior. Because the news isn't new anymore, we forget. They torture their own people, they threaten us, they rattle sabers, and we mock them because they've been threatening and rattling sabers for years. And still nothing changes.

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Julian Hattem

Julian Hattem is a reporter for The Hill.

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