Since the days of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s international reputation has been defined largely by its gaudy displays of power. The world mocks the rogue nation for its grandiose rituals, absurd legal pronouncements, and the mythical cult of personality constructed around the Kim dynasty. North Koreans revere the family’s bizarre antics and claims of godlike achievements as a sort of secular state religion.

But are these strange actions meant solely to keep the Korean people subjugated? Or do they also throw up a smokescreen to distract outsiders from the true horrors of the Kim regime?

While the world laughs at the egomaniacal absurdity of North Korean propaganda, Kim Jong-un presides over a starving population. Westerners parody bizarre, expertly choreographed children’s music recitals as a joke. But meanwhile, the regime is slowly improving its weapons program.

This wouldn’t be the first time that a tyrant has used the Western media’s penchant for sensationalism to his advantage. Another such figure was Idi Amin, Uganda’s dictator from 1971 to 1979. In addition to declaring himself the uncrowned King of Scotland, Amin’s adopted a comically long title: “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, CBE, Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.”

Of course, some have posited that Amin’s insane display was, in fact, a cunning ruse designed to distract the outside world from his disgusting human rights abuses.

Likewise, former Libyan President Moammar Gaddafi’s famously bizarre behavior led many observers to conclude that he was insane. But, with the chaos that followed the collapse of his regime in mind, we may need to rethink this assumption.  Is it really possible that a madman was able to keep Libya under his thumb for over 40 years?

It’s impossible not to laugh at some of the bizarre claims put forward by North Korea’s state media. However, we must not laugh at the expense of ignoring the very real threat posed by the communist dictatorship. We also must not ignore the brutal mistreatment of North Korea’s citizens.

After all, we’ve seen people use the tactic before–and it’s only funny until it isn’t.