North Korea is not known for its ringing endorsements of South Korea’s leadership, but its recent assessments of Park Geun-hye have taken a very personal tone of late.
Specifically, they have resorted to offensive slurs directed at the gender of the South’s first female president.
The first of these came last spring, not long after Park’s inauguration and during a heated period of saber-rattling during joint U.S.-South Korean military drills. The drills are frequently the source of tension, in which the North accuses the U.S. and South Korean leaders of hosting the drills as preparation for invasion and vows to meet any act of aggression with a devastating counterattack.
Last spring was particularly tense, though, as the North shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, announced that it would not observe non-aggression pacts between the two Koreas and even threatened nuclear strikes against the U.S.
Last March, early in this tense period, the North Korean National Defense Commission targeted Park specifically, deriding the “venomous swish of her skirt.”
The North had frequently blasted her predecessor and fellow member of the right-leaning Saenuri Party Lee Myung-bak, calling him a traitor and depicting him as a rat meeting a gruesome death. Up to that point, though, there had been little mention of Park at the highest levels of the North Korean government, even though she is the daughter of their former nemesis Park Chung-hee – whom the North on more than one occasion tried to assassinate.
Inter-Korean relations have, as is typical, gone through ups-and-downs throughout 2013 and early this year, with Kaesong reopening, reunions between family members planned for September and then falling through, and finally taking place in late February.
THE DRESDEN EFFECT
Then, in March, came the European trip. Park embarked on a multi-country tour in which she met with other heads of state to discuss containing the North’s nuclear program, at one point stating her concern that the North’s nuclear materials might fall into the hands of a third party.
‘(Park) had never married, nor given birth to child. It is really ridiculous that such a cold-blooded animal talked about human affairs, feigning to be concerned about our women and children’
But even this was tame in comparison to the reaction her Dresden Doctrine provoked. Speaking from the largest university in the eastern European city – a statement in and of itself given Germany’s post-World War II division and post-Cold War reunion – Park outlined her strategy for thawing ties between the two countries, promising investment into and development of North Korea in return for Pyongyang’s denuclearization.
This plan has itself been criticized by less hostile commentators as unrealistic sloganeering, and North Korea’s track record in recent years has been to reject calls for denuclearization, which it has tied to regime survival.
Still, the North Korean reaction was ferocious, as state media posted “interviews” with citizens, running a series of stories with the headline “We accuse Park the bitch,” calling her an “ugly old maid,” and pointedly criticizing her for never marrying or having children of her own.
“It is really ridiculous that such a cold-blooded animal talked about human affairs, feigning to be concerned about our women and children,” one Pyongyang resident was quoted as saying.
It has been suggested that Park’s use of Dresden as the venue for this criticism is what they found especially galling, but Germany has frequently been the venue for South Korean presidents to make similar statements. In fact, every South Korean president since Kim Young-sam in 1995 – five years after German reunification – has used it as the location for a similar address.
So what explains North Korea’s barbs directed at Park’s gender, specifically?
A CONFUCIAN CONNECTION?
One possible explanation is Confucianism; from 1392 to just before Japanese annexation in 1910, the Joseon Dynasty that ruled the Korean Peninsula zealously promoted Neo-Confucianism, which enforced a strict stratification system and assigned specific social roles, including by gender. North Korea does not officially claim to be Confucian, but many of the customs of its ruling family are consistent with the belief system’s ideals. This includes a hereditary system of rule among three generations of men – something unheard of in virtually all of the North’s former communist allies, but also the filial piety its rulers display toward their parents. Its propaganda even depicts national founder Kim Il Sung paying homage to his parents.
Furthermore, North Korea has its own rules about women’s public conduct, including what they wear, but also a ban – albeit one inconsistently enforced – on riding bicycles.
In that sense, it’s easy to assume that a woman serving in a leadership role would attract criticism, but scholars on Confucian thought told NK News that this a flawed basis of analysis.
“I would expect a Confucian critique to relate more to the inappropriateness of a woman holding a leadership role,” said John Chafee, history professor at Binghamton University in New York state. “The vitriolic statements coming out of the North Korean articles strike me a misogynistic, peevish and immature – frankly, they sound to me like Kim Jong Un, or at least the Kim Jong Un as represented in the Western press.”
Others disputed the idea of Confucianism as sexist – at least in the sense of male superiority.
‘They have to blame somebody and divert attention away from their own colossal mismanagement of the state’
“It values women as highly as men, but in different roles,” said Michael Pettid, professor of Asian Studies, also at Binghamton University. Pettid also said the Kim Jong Un is too young to have internalized Confucianism’s ideals, and said his very un-filial execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, at the end of last year suggests a different basis for the government’s actions.
“North Korea attacks South Korea and their rulers because it is all they have left to do,” Pettid said. “They have to blame somebody and divert attention away from their own colossal mismanagement of the state.”
However, while he didn’t mention Confucianism specifically, Geir Helgesen at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies believes that traditional norms regarding gender in both Koreas indeed play a role in these remarks.
“Sexist and gender-biased negative outcries have been frequently used in the Southern half of the county over the years as well,” he said. “It’s a too simple a generalization to say that ‘it’s a part of the culture,’ but it might be more accurate to say that it is a negative side-effect of a patriarchal tradition that lingers on, in South as well as in the North.”
If the source of these outbursts has less to do with Confucianism and more to do with an aspect specific to the North, what can be learned from this and how should South Korea and its allies respond?
Tatiana Gabroussenko, a researcher at the Australian National University and an expert on North Korean literature, said that she has seen very little that denigrates women in her research field.
‘It seems that in a sense we are brought back to the DPRK of the 1950s when ‘dog s–t bastard’ used to be a regular description of an enemy’
“The only misogynistic descriptions which come to my head are a few of those which depict bad foreign (mostly American) women in earlier North Korean works of literature,” she said. “Normally, the attacks like that have been atypical in North Korean narrations after the 1960s.”
However, use of offensive rhetoric seems to be making a comeback in the North Korean media in general, she said, and not just toward women.
“It seems that in a sense we are brought back to the DPRK of the 1950s when ‘dog s–t bastard’ used to be a regular description of an enemy – it is enough to mention (the) recent anti-Jang Song Thaek campaign, with it’s extreme rudeness.”
Jang was denounced as, among other things, “despicable human scum” and “worse than a dog” in the North Korean media.
Jana Hajzlerova, a specialist on North Korean ideology from the Institute of East Asian Studies at Charles University in Prague, said there is a specific process in North Korean media in which the state detects, criticizes and promises to destroy “evil” – in this case, a threat to peace and harmony that justifies North Korean state tactics.
“Recent remarks about Park Geun-hye in North Korean media fall exactly into this pattern, same as Lee Myung-bak did few years ago,” Hajzlerova said. “Park is personalized evil.”
In this context, the “sexist” remarks about Park actually follow another pattern, in which the “evil,” particularly of South Korean origin, is delegitimized – North Korean English propaganda reports always lower-case the “s” in South Korea, to reflect that the division of the peninsula into two states is not legitimate, and use scare quotes when mentioning the southern “government.”
Hajzlerova said that, in addition to the usual escalation in rhetoric at this time of year, North Korea seems most angry at the attention Park received during her Dresden speech on unification.
“… it simply must have been painful in so many ways for North Korea … to watch Park being listened to by the whole world when talking unification,” Hajzlerova said. “And from a place that used to be North Korea’s ally few decades ago. Message received: It is clear now who should play the unifier and who the unified.”
Helgesen pointed out that, just before a date for the February family reunions was set, the North and South had reached a formal agreement to “stop slandering one another.” He said this may point to a nationwide problem for the Northern government, a failure of coordination between its branches.
“What is then the most reasonable response to such stupid comments?” he said. “Dialogue, more contacts, more relations. It’s tempting to say that we have to excuse them, because they are obviously not aware of what they are saying. Not aware of how counterproductive this is for their own country and its relations with the outside world.”