This picture taken from North Korean TV and released by South Korean news agency Yonhap on January 6, 2016 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un signing a document of a hydrogen bomb test in Pyongyang. (AFP Photo)
Just weeks ago, news organizations were turning to zany North Korea for the kind of story that dependably blossoms in the Hermit Kingdom: the wacky, wild tale of an isolated nation's amusing backwardness. The headline: "Kim Jong-un travels with personal toilet."
"The restrooms are not only in Kim Jong-un's personal train but whatever small or midsize cars he is traveling with and even in special vehicles that are designed for mountainous terrain or snow," the Guardian wrote, citing "a source in South Pyongan province, who is close to the Escort Command tasked with guarding the leader." The source added: "There are multiple vehicles within the convoy so that people cannot tell which one he is in, and there is a separate car that acts as his restroom."
Just another fun-filled day north of the DMZ. But when North Korea announced this week that it had tested its first hydrogen bomb, laughter quickly turned to alarm. If real, this test marked a major technological advancement for a nation that occasionally seems bent on world destruction. Decidedly unfunny.
"If confirmed as a nuclear test, this act constitutes a breach of the universally accepted norm against nuclear testing; a norm that has been respected by 183 countries since 1996," Lassina Zerbo, an official with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, told Yonhap. "It is also a grave threat to international peace and security."
No matter what kinds of bombs he successfully explodes, Kim - and North Korea - cannot go from international stooge to international bogeyman overnight. Just as he never stops being hilarious, he never stops being terrifying. Alas, many nations of the world, laughing at Kim's eyebrows or haircut or personal girl band, occasionally forget the downsides of his iron-fisted rule. Starvation.
Racism. International provocations with nuclear weapons.
Of course, laughing at dictators has long been a strategy of those who wish to topple them. Adolph Hitler killed millions - so the Three Stooges lampooned him, and the story circulated that he had one testicle. We joked about Saddam Hussein's romance novels and Moammar Gadhafi's female bodyguards. We laughed about Zimbabwe's president, nonagenarian Robert Mugabe eating an elephant. And Russian president Vladimir Putin looks pretty funny shirtless on a horse.
With North Korea - a nation whose bizarre news agency practically writes its own punchlines - this response seems amplified. In different ways, we've been battling this country for over half a century. Perhaps sheer fatigue leaves us able to do nothing more than, say, watch "The Interview."
"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," Julian Hattem wrote in the Atlantic in 2013. "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."
North Korea burnout, however, comes with a price.
"Please don't see Kim Jong Un as a joke," one defector said last year. "He is killing millions of people."
© 2015 The Washington Post