In an age of hypersensitivity to sexism and homophobia, why does the North Korean regime escape censure? North Korean media specialize in a gutter rhetoric that, from any other source, would be met with immediate condemnation. The world, however, seems so accustomed to hearing astonishingly repellent remarks from the North Korean propagandists that now anything goes.
President Obama’s recent trip to Seoul, to shore up the alliance at a time of North Korean missile firings and the threat of another nuclear test, elicited insults from Pyongyang directed not only at South Korea’s female President Park Geun-hye but also at President Obama himself. After the Obama-Park April 25 meeting, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), quoting the Committee for Peaceful Reunification of Korea, stated that “Park Geun-hye’s recent behavior with Obama was like an immature girl begging gangsters to beat up someone she doesn’t like or a crafty prostitute eagerly trying to frame someone by giving her body to a powerful pimp.”
On May 2, KCNA became even more loathsome in a public rant condemning President Park and her administration for the recent tragic sinking of the ferry “Sewol” in which over 300, mainly high school students from the same school, perished. The KCNA report brands President Park as “the owner of a grave keeper’s cottage” and as being just like “a rabid dog keen on biting others.” The report continues with a racial slur against Obama, with KCNA attacking Park for “inviting her American master reminiscent of a wicked black monkey to visit South Korea on April 25th.”
Such crude racist and sexist language would not be tolerated from any other source. Has an American president, perhaps with the exception of wartime, ever been so demeaned by the official media of a foreign government? Yet the assumption in Washington seems to continue to be “well, it’s just the North Koreans again.”
The National Security Council did issue a rather tepid response, after media coverage of the verbal attacks by both Josh Stanton’s on-line blog “OneFreeKorea” and a report by Chico Harlan of the Washington Post. “While the North Korean Government-controlled media are distinguished by their histrionics, these comments are particularly ugly and disrespectful,” said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. Not exactly Churchillian.
According to an April 28 report by NKNews.org, President Park was also labeled with the historically inflammatory word “Comfort Woman” by Pyongyang media after her meeting with President Obama. (Right- wing deniers in Japan may wish to take note as their own past insensitive remarks on “Comfort Women”—women and girls used as sex slaves by the Imperial Japanese military during the Second World War—could put them in the same company with the sexist slanderers in Pyongyang.)
NKNews.org also notes that other North Korean insults aimed at the South Korean President have included: “an old hen,” “spinster” (President Park has never married and has no children), “babbling like an old peasant woman,” and “bitch.” Why is there almost complete silence over the official statements of a foreign government which are blatantly offensive and insult both the American president and a U.S. ally?
When former President George W. Bush used the terminology “axis of evil” to refer to North Korea in his 2002 State of the Union address, he was roundly criticized in the media for allegedly making talks with Pyongyang more difficult. And Pyongyang has repeatedly complained, in the now suspended Six-Party Talks, about the purported “hostile intent” of the United States. There has, however, never been an occasion where an American official referred to Kim Jong-un, his father or grandfather as “a pimp” or “a monkey.”
There seems to be no limit, in contrast, to the level of insults employed by the North Korean regime against those who displease it. Pyongyan referred to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as “a minister in a skirt.” Former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was once called “human scum who earned ill-fame as an anti-communist fanatic.” Former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was often referred to as “a rat,” with tens of thousands of cadres at one Pyongyang rally screaming for his death.
The pursuit by successive U. S. administrations of the holy grail of North Korean denuclearization seems to have made Washington hesitant to overly criticize the Pyongyang regime. This was again made evident by the recent release of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on North Korean human rights abuses—which COI Chairman Michael Kirby compared to that of the Nazis during the Second World War. But silence on North Korean human rights—with the notable exception of Congress, which passed the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004—has largely been the watchword in official Washington.
Kirby himself recently felt the sting of North Korean venom. After he presented the COI report’s findings to an informal meeting of the U.N. Security Council on April 17, KCNA replied on April 22: “As for Kirby, who took the lead in ‘cooking’ the report, he is a disgusting old lecher with a 40 year-odd-long-career of homosexuality. He is now over seventy, but he is still anxious to get married to his homosexual partner.” (Judge Kirby has made no secret of his sexual orientation.)
Again, where are the voices of protest? If Beverly Hills celebrities, like Jay Leno, are willing to stand outside a hotel owned by U.S. trade partner, the Sultan of Brunei, to protest the introduction of homophobic and misogynistic sharia law in his country, why are they not in front of the North Korean U.N. mission in New York?
And where is the official outcry when the leading elected woman in Asia is vilified for her gender and marital status? The report of the Special Rapporteur, prepared as a portion of the Platform for Action adopted by the 1995 U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, noted that “sexual harassment constitutes a form of sex discrimination. It not only degrades the woman but reinforces and reflects the idea of non-professionalism on the part of women workers, who are consequently regarded as less able to perform their duties than their male colleagues.” Isn’t Pyongyang blatantly violating U.N. gender principles in its repeated verbal attacks on President Park? So what does America’s U.N. Ambassador Samantha Powers have to say?
Kim Jong-un’s sexist rants against the South Korean president should not be tolerated nor should his racist taunts against the leader of the free world. And the world should not silently acquiesce in his demeaning treatment of North Korean women, who are among the world’s main victims of sexual trafficking, forced abortions, and human rights abuses.
Dennis P. Halpin was the U.S. Embassy/Beijing coordinator for the 1995 U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women. He is a former Asian advisor to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, and a consultant to the Poblete Analysis Group (PAG).