As a world-class eccentric, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il made an easy punch line. But our focus on the superficial, comical aspects of Kim Jong Il must not come at the expense of recognizing the true meaning of his regime to the 24 million people who continue to suffer under it.

As a world-class eccentric, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il made an easy punch line.

The giant glasses, the hair always standing at attention, the authoritarian wardrobe, the record-breaking golf scores routinely reported, straight-faced, by North Korean state media. They all combined to create a persona so singularly egotistic, delusional and isolated that Dear Leader — another chuckle-worthy affectation — became a walking parody of a crazy dictator.

It’s not surprising, then, that much of the early reaction to Kim’s death this week focused on his weird quirks. We’ve seen more of his puppet image from the movie “Team America” in the last two days than we’ve seen in the seven years since the film’s release. The succession of his pudgy heir, Kim Jong Un (the “Great Successor”), brings promise of more lampooning to come.

But our focus on the superficial, comical aspects of Kim Jong Il must not come at the expense of recognizing the true meaning of his regime to the 24 million people who continue to suffer under it. In fact, the cartoon image we crafted for Kim is indicative of an ominous, overriding fact: We know virtually nothing about Kim, his country, its government and its society outside of the staged and scripted glimpses it occasionally grants the outside world. Ignorance of the details of his brutality has helped solidify the public perception of Kim as a one-dimensional buffoon.

What we do know about Kim’s North Korea is horrific. A network of gulags ensures that government dissent is nonexistent, with dissenters and their families locked away and often executed. (The Washington Post in 2008 published a profile of the only known escapee from such a camp.) Famine killed up to 2 million North Koreans in the 1990s and malnutrition remains rampant. As its people starve, the regime has focused more exclusively on building North Korea’s military.

The leaders of what became North Korea in 1948 are not merely obeyed; they are deified. Founding Prime Minister Kim Il Sung, known as “Great Leader” during his lifetime, became “Eternal President” upon his death in 1994. Defectors, the few that there are, consistently depict a brainwashed people vowing complete fealty to the Kim dynasty.

Of greatest consequence in all this: North Korea has nuclear weapons. It is believed to have sold ballistic missile technology to Iran, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen.

A nuclear state helmed by eccentric, unpredictable and nearly unknown leaders controlling a subservient population in utter isolation from the rest of the world — and in a perpetual state of simmering hostility with its namesake neighbor to the south — is a terrifying combination.

Adding to this discomfort is the fact that the world, for all the efforts of all the intelligence agencies across the globe, knows even less about Kim Jong Un than it ever did about his father.

One thing is certain, however. The younger Kim’s ascension represents the extremely rare chance for the outside world to reach out to a new leader in North Korea. Whether he may be any more receptive than his father and grandfather to invitations to open up and engage with the outside world no one knows.

But those invitations must come, and persuasively. Kim Jong Un is only 28. Masking our fears of the unknown through mockery for, potentially, many more decades to come is not an encouraging prospect.

The State Journal-Register