Skip to main content

Last Week Tonight Dives Into North Korea, Delivering Surprising Emotional Wallop

If there’s something John Oliver does extremely well on Last Week Tonight, it’s tackling incredibly heavy, dense topics. Most importantly, he does so with a razor sharp wit and humor that helps the important lessons stick, and that humor came in especially handy in this segment on North Korea.

Recommended Videos

Oliver uses the dick-waving Twitter showdown between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as an entry point into the whys and wherefores of the country, eventually leading up to a “what can we do about this” exploration of how activists are combating the country’s propaganda machine. It’s a fascinating report, one that certainly deserves your attention.

For starters, Oliver looks at why we, as a country, often look upon North Korea with a bit of humor, as if the entire country were a joke. Often what ends up happening is the media reports on some of the more wild rumors as if they were fact, which not only dilutes the truth of what’s actually happening, but it also changes the public perception of the country, so much so that horrific facts about their hard labor camps and punishments for captured defectors seem to be set in some fantastical, nigh fictional realm. But the truth of the matter is that they are not, and real people are suffering while folks laugh at wild rumors about the haircuts of every man in North Korea.

The segment ends with a surprise appearance from Weird Al Yankovic, which is a bit of a reference to the fact that North Korea seems to adore the accordion. Weird Al plays what is basically a shorter version of one of his famous polkas, singing things like, “Please don’t nuke us, North Korea” and “Why in the world would you kill Tom Hanks? Cause nobody doesn’t like Tom Hanks!” (Yes, there is totally a drop down flag showing Hanks’ face, because of course there is.)

It doesn’t escape Oliver that he, too, is kind of poking fun at the country, and he uses that humor as a spoonful of sugar to the reporting on said labor camps and the horrors therein. There’s a first hand account of what those camps are like, complete with artist renderings of the horrors. It’s a gut punch, to be sure, but a sorely needed one.

The most critical reminder, I think, is that while we here in America have been feeling the existential dread of possible nuclear armageddon, the people most likely to suffer from a potential “conventional” war are actually the people living in China and South Korea. The U.S. is often painted as North Korea’s nemesis, but we need to remember that there are still so many people between them and us, people who stand to lose everything if our dancing marionette of a president keeps goading North Korea on Twitter. Oliver shares a particularly chilling fact, which is that North Korea has 8,000 heavy artillery guns installed just north of the demilitarized zone, and 40 miles from the DMZ is the South Korean capital of Seoul. In other words, if the U.S. were to enact some targeted strikes against North Korea and their nuclear capabilities, North Korea would retaliate against South Korea, taking countless millions in return.

A potential war or conflict with North Korea wouldn’t be paid for so much in American blood, but rather South Korean and possibly Chinese blood. The potential for nuclear armageddon certainly should put the world on edge, but remember, even if such weapons are never used, there is still potential for the loss of millions and millions of lives. At this point, as a country, as a people, we need to remember that, and we must hold our warmongering government responsible for the potential lives at stake—even if those lives are not our own.

Want more stories like this? Become a subscriber and support the site!

The Mary Sue has a strict comment policy that forbids, but is not limited to, personal insults toward anyone, hate speech, and trolling.—

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]


Jessica Lachenal
Jessica Lachenal is a writer who doesn’t talk about herself a lot, so she isn’t quite sure how biographical info panels should work. But here we go anyway. She's the Weekend Editor for The Mary Sue, a Contributing Writer for The Bold Italic (, and a Staff Writer for Spinning Platters ( She's also been featured in Model View Culture and Frontiers LA magazine, and on Autostraddle. She hopes this has been as awkward for you as it has been for her.

Filed Under:

Follow The Mary Sue: