Strict Limitations Keep the Laughing Private : Political Humor Is No Joke in S. Korea

September 13, 1987|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL, South Korea — Did you hear the one about President Chun Doo Hwan and four other guys in a submarine? You will here, along with variations involving a lifeboat and an airplane.

But there is not a lot of political humor in South Korea, mainly because there has not been a lot of politics in nearly four decades of independence.

The targets have been few, and skins have been thin. Syngman Rhee, Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan have been the men at the top and have paid for it in the humor of the teahouses and campus hangouts. But their aides have suppressed efforts to poke fun at them in public forums.

Still, Koreans like a joke. They tell them with relish. And when Chun leaves office next February, the comics will lose their favorite foil: a short, bald man who, as the jokes have it, was not the brightest in his class.

Joke's on Chun

The joke about Chun in the submarine has him accompanied by President Reagan, Pope John Paul II, the skipper and a small boy. The sub springs a leak. It is doomed, and there are just four Aqua-lungs for escape. The Pope cites his responsibility to the world's Roman Catholics, takes an Aqua-lung and disappears through the hatch. Reagan must lead the Free World; he takes one and leaves. Chun says that 40 million South Koreans rely on his leadership, and out he goes.

The skipper turns to the boy and says: "There's just one lung left. I must go down with my ship. You take it."

"No, no," the boy says. "It's not necessary. We still have two Aqua-lungs. President Chun went out with a fire extinguisher."

That one got a laugh the other day on the Yonsei University campus, so the student came back with the variations: On the plane Chun mistakes a knapsack for a parachute, and in the lifeboat a ski parka for a life preserver.

Chun, Roh, Airplane

Making private fun of the president is about as far as political humor goes here for now, though there is one joke circulating about Chun and Roh Tae Woo, a relatively obscure figure until last spring, when Chun anointed Roh as his candidate to succeed him as president. Now Roh has a high profile and has become a target too.

The story has Chun and Roh in an airplane, flying over their country. The president pulls two 10,000-won bills out of his wallet and tells Roh, "If I drop these out of the plane, I can make two people very happy."

"Right," Roh responds, "but if you changed them to 1,000-won notes you could make 20 people very happy."

Then the pilot speaks up: "Ah, but if I drop the two of you out of the plane, I can make 40 million people very happy."

Opposition Spared

Being gored in private jokes is an exclusive vulnerability of the ruling party. The political situation here is too serious, and has been for decades, for people to make fun of opposition leaders.

A tour of the campuses, teahouses and nightclubs turned up no one who could recall a joke about Kim Dae Jung or Kim Young Sam, the main opposition figures. Their time will come, perhaps, if the opposition wins the presidential election. But for now their public images are those of political martyrs, being placed under house arrest or sent to prison. Not a joking matter.

Seoul's popular editorial cartoonists have managed to keep alive only a flicker of political humor. Not since the early days of the Park presidency have cartoonists been permitted to caricature a South Korean ruler. While U.S. political cartoonists like Paul Conrad and Pat Oliphant have raised Cain with American presidents, men such as Chung Woon Kyung and Kim Sung Hwan have paid a price for their efforts here.

Kim, 55, has been a newspaper cartoonist for three decades, through the Rhee, Park and Chun presidencies. He began with the newspaper Dong-A Ilbo, and now works for the Chosun Ilbo.

"The day should come when we can caricature the head of state," Kim said.

It hasn't yet. President Chun has never appeared in a South Korean newspaper cartoon, a presidential prerogative that began early in the rule of Park Chung Hee, nearly 25 years ago.

"My attitudes basically haven't changed over the years," Kim said. "But there have been so many restrictions that I had to be indirect."

Kim's comments on life and politics are spoken by the hero of his four-panel strip, Gobau, a small, bespectacled man with a flat head and a single, curling hair. There have been days when Gobau's observations have not been as oblique as officials would prefer.

"Many times," said the soft-spoken, amiable Kim, he has been called into government intelligence offices or telephoned by the minister of culture and information to hear complaints about his work.

There was the day in 1977 when Gobau went to the shore with a directional arrow and commanded the water to recede. Awash in the final panel, he wonders why his command has not been obeyed. The message was not lost on the ministers of an authoritarian government.

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