When Kim Jong-nam was murdered two weeks ago, the world put its sympathy aside to revel in the perverse humour of the suspected assassin's T-shirt, emblazoned with the word "LOL". With the meme-able image now viral, we ask – is the internet eating...
There are moments in life when reality becomes so morbidly absurd that, despite how completely messed up the situation is, all we can do is laugh out loud. One of those moments and a sure fire early entry for 2k17's image of the year, is the lo-fi security footage still of the beautiful millennial North Korea assassin and her "LOL" emblazoned shirt. Cutting through one of the most bizarre news stories since anything Donald Trump related happened, the LOL assassin appeared like a ready made, walking meme, an instant icon (if you disregard all the totally morally reprehensible murdery death stuff) straight from the plot of a potentially great YA novel in which a former Pop Idol contestant stays in cheap hotels, carries large amounts of cash and assassinates the exiled brother of North Korea's leader whilst ironically wearing a shirt with "LOL" written across it.
To recap on how this all started, North Korean despot heir Kim Jong-un had an older half brother named Kim Jong-nam, who was at some point considered the heir to their father Kim Jong-il. That was until Kim Jong-nam was arrested for using a forged Dominican Republic passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland (we've all done it). As a result Kim Jong-nam was exiled, taking refuge in various countries across Asia, where he quickly became disillusioned with the North Korean regime and started publicly hating on his brother.
What happened next makes the plot of James Franco movie The Interview seem legit. On the 14th February Kim Jong-nam was likely poisoned with the VX nerve agent (also known as ethyl N-2-Diisopropylaminoethyl Methylphosphonothiolate and classified by the UN as a weapon of mass destruction) during a split second assassination attack at an airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Since the assassination major plot twists in the story include an attempt to steal Kim Jong-nam's body from the morgue, one suspect claiming she was duped into the assassination thinking she was part of a reality TV Just For Laughs style prank involving spraying men in the face with water and North Korea's State news agency insisting Kim Jong-nam is possibly not the assassinated man and instead died of a heart attack (in our current fake news climate who can blame them?)
It's basically unfolding like an odd-ball episode of the X-Files (more on that kind of thinking in Nora Khan and Steven Warwick aka Heatsick's fear indexing X-Files deconstruction) that's captivated the public imagination with its echoes of Cold War-era conspiracy.
The incident spawned an avalanche of tabloid headlines but it's the grainy CCTV image of the LOL assassin that's gone viral. The woman in the picture is thought to be Doan Thi Huong, a 28-year-old from a rice farm in northern Vietnam, she's an entertainment worker and former contestant on Vietnam's Pop Idol equivalent.
Up until the assassination, the existence of a 'LOL' emblazoned shirt in 2017 was totally passé but the internet's opportunistic cashing in on the murder has shown that there's seemingly nothing that can not be monetised and reappropriated today.
Overnight the new millennial nihilist chic of the LOL assassin spread through the net, with replica shirts cropping up online for as much as £700 on one Taobao listing (which really is no surprising since the site trades in turning around knock-offs of popular celebrity fashion in a heartbeat). Tabloid newspapers expressed outrage with headlines like "Opportunistic sickos cash in on assassination of Kim Jong-un's half-brother by using pic of 'female assassin' in CCTV to flog their 'LOL' tops", while Business Insider reported one US designer was planning to push "LOL" T-shirts to trolls, anti-fascists and feminists in the wake of the assassination. The designer argued that "human rights abuses" by North Korea's leaders outweighed any arguments against not only selling the T-shirts but marketing them in connection with the assassination, but I think we can all agree that good taste might be a reason to curb this kind of opportunistic retail.
Up until the assassination, the existence of a "LOL" emblazoned shirt in 2017 was totally passé but the internet's opportunistic cashing in on the murder has shown that there's seemingly nothing that can not be monetised and reappropriated today. Afterall nothing says chic like mimicking the wardrobe of a suspected (and possibly entrapped) criminal! It's surely only a matter of time until we can buy our very own shirts with the security footage image of the LOL assassin actually printed on them; whether the people tweeting "iconic", "kill me next" will be wearing them is anyone's guess.
We've yet to hear anything directly from the LOL assassin about her motives and if they come with any politically ideological strings attached, but it might not be a massive jump to slot her image alongside iconic images of political resistance like those of Patty Hearst or the Red Army Faction. Kim Jong-nam's assassination could be interpreted as a form of political martyrdom and in turn the LOL assassin's actions as a form of terrorism or asymmetric warfare - a subject tackled in Bruce La Bruce's new lesbian separatist terrorist film The Misandrists - which really would align her with the likes of the RAF. For now it's the LOL assassin's analogue mystery that's her true appeal, she's a blank slate to project any Hollywood inspired assassin narrative onto from Saoirse Ronan's Hanna or Natalie Portman's Mathilda from Léon.
The irony of anything North Korea related going viral aside - The DPRK's internet has notoriously restricted access and features as little as 28 websites - and despite the deplorable nature of murder, it's easy to see how this kind of IRL act is reduced to entertainment and online fantasy/fetishising. It's indicative of how the internet shapes reality, "breaking from the banality of one's own existence," as Sergey Armeyskov puts it in The Memes of Our Lives, or How the Internet Shapes Reality in the Current Year.
In this way the LOL assassin image is essentially no different to the viral image of the Ikea monkey. What we're talking about here is how the internet turns images into "information viruses", taking a moment in history and co-opting reality, defining and redefining how our sense of reality is shaped in a post-postmodern world.
The idea of the internet eating reality is one thing, but there's also an increasingly credible scientific theory that we're actually existing in a computer simulation, with events like Kim Jong-nam's assassination argued as evidence of bad programming. As Elon Musk acknowledged at a Code Conference in 2016, the development of simulations "indistinguishable from reality" are inevitable and the idea that we actually exist in actual "base reality" is statistically "one in billions." The theory goes that humans are evolving into post-human states, if we're already in the process of this transition then viral images like the LOL assassin are just symptoms of this transitional state in our development.
In this simulated reality the assassination of Kim Jong-nam is still real to us and still matters for us programmed peoples in this particular simulation, but then if this is a simulation he also never really existed at all. Tbh, even if we are in base reality it's arguably inconsequential in the grand scheme of the infinite multiverse so, who's laughing now? Us. And it's at a new meme about that Ikea Monkey.
Text Russell Dean Stone