On May 2, 2014, North Korea aroused considerable international attention (and indignation) when the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) compared U.S. President Barack Obama to a “wicked black monkey.” To hammer the message home, a Korean-language article published soon after quoted four North Korean citizens who elaborated on the monkey image by focusing specifically on Obama’s physical appearance and ethnic origin. For instance, a metal worker named Kang Hyuk was quoted as follows: “Africa’s national zoo will be the perfect place for Obama to live with licking bread crumbs thrown by visitors.”
At first glance, the motives behind this crude verbal attack on the United States’ first African-American president may appear quite simple. Ever since Brian Myers published his seminal books, Han Sorya and North Korean Literature (1994) and The Cleanest Race (2010), DPRK watchers have become increasingly aware of the racist and dehumanizing aspects of North Korean propaganda, including the use of pejorative zoological metaphors. In the light of the massive evidence Myers presented on the significance of racial images in Pyongyang’s anti-American propaganda, it seems fairly logical to draw the conclusion: The unreconstructed racist has come out of the closet, that’s all.
Sure enough, the extreme nationalism that permeated North Korean ideology was bound to inspire attitudes of racial superiority not only toward Pyongyang’s traditional foreign opponents (America and Japan) but even toward the DPRK’s putative Third World allies. On several occasions, Soviet bloc diplomats reported that North Korean cadres made “slips of the tongue” that indicated disdain for, and even dislike of, the very same developing countries that North Korean propaganda touted as friends and partners. For instance, on April 9, 1968 Foreign Minister Pak Song Cheol, discussing North Korea’s aid programs in the developing world with Hungarian apparatchik Árpád Pullai, “criticized the excessive and swaggering pretensions (of Third World leaders), the issue of the construction of stadiums and hotels, and the fact that in these countries people simply did not want to work.” On November 10, 1967, Choe Kuk Hyon, the 2nd Secretary of the DPRK Embassy in Budapest, informed a Hungarian diplomat, István Garajszki, about his earlier visit in Ghana, Guinea and Mali. Having complained that “the Negroes (sic) are very reticent, they did not mingle easily with us,” Choe went on to lament that “the blackness of the Negro waiters and the dirty-looking color of their palms made my stomach turn, which prevented me from eating.” The utterly shocked Garajszki added the following comment to his report: “These statements of Comrade Choe demonstrate such a Korean attitude toward Negroes that we could not even imagine.”
Still, Frank Feinstein, who runs the KCNA Watch service, had good reason to describe Pyongyang’s racist attack on Obama as a phenomenon unprecedented in recent KCNA history. Indeed, the surprise of Garajszki, a diplomat with considerable field experience in the DPRK, also shows that anti-black racism was not such an established and visible element of North Korean propaganda as the negative portrayal of Caucasian and Japanese opponents. On the contrary, North Korean media – as Benjamin Young pointed out in his thesis on Pyongyang’s relations with the Black Panther Party – were more inclined to express sympathy toward colored peoples in general and African-Americans in particular. Of course, such expressions of sympathy were motivated primarily by the desire to find fault with U.S. practices. For instance, a KCNA article, titled “Racism, Misanthropy Rampant in U.S.,” declared that, “Black people in the U.S. are bound to fall victim to killings by whites for the mere reason that they are black but they have no place to complain of this injustice” (KCNA, April 24, 2012).
Nor does the monkey image belong to the usual vocabulary of North Korean invectives. If one analyzes the English-language KCNA articles published from December 1996 to the present, the following pattern emerges: Of the zoological metaphors the KCNA employed to insult and ridicule political opponents, “wolf,” “dog,” “rat” and “reptile” were the most common. “Serpent,” “snake,” “shark,” “ostrich,” “spider,” “insect” and such unspecified terms as “monster” and “beast” were also used, though more sporadically. In contrast, the KCNA’s earlier references to nonhuman primates were exclusively of a non-metaphorical nature; that is, they described actual monkeys that were exhibited in zoos, trained in circuses or involved in Iran’s space program.
SEXISM AND RACISM
‘…the attack on Obama occurred at a time when North Korean propaganda hurled similarly unprecedented insults at South Korean President Park Geun-hye’
To find an explanation for the KCNA’s decision to use this particular invective, it is advisable to examine the period and political context in which the statements were made. As NK News has pointed out, the attack on Obama occurred at a time when North Korean propaganda hurled similarly unprecedented insults at South Korean President Park Geun-hye. From April 27 on, the KCNA repeatedly called her a “capricious whore,” a “dirty comfort woman” and an “old harlot,” to mention but a few of the most explicit invectives. These insults were not as gender-neutral as the term “political prostitute” (which the KCNA liberally attached to such male politicians as Kim Young-sam, Lee Hoi-chang, Choe Seong-hong and Lee Myung-bak) but directly targeted Park’s femininity. In the light of Park Geun-hye’s efforts to compel Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe to admit responsibility for the wartime mistreatment of Korean “comfort women,” the term “comfort woman” was of an especially offensive nature. Just like the KCNA’s racist outburst against Obama, this verbal assault on Korea’s first female president deliberately broke the rules of political correctness. Apart from being ad hominem attacks of the crudest type, they also offended women and African-Americans as such.
In fact, the two verbal attacks were not just similar; they were closely interrelated. The very first KCNA statement that insulted Park Geun-hye was an official comment on Obama’s visit in South Korea (April 25-26), and the invectives hurled at her were expressly aimed at discrediting the partnership between the United States and the Republic of Korea. Still, the mere fact of the visit may not have triggered such an unprecedented assault, for Obama’s earlier visits in Korea (November 18-19, 2009, November 10-12, 2010 and March 25-27, 2012) did not induce Pyongyang to throw all decency to the wind. On the contrary, the KCNA seems to have adopted a low-key attitude toward these trips – an approach that sharply differed from the vocal campaigns North Korean propaganda had launched against the Korean visits of President George W. Bush in February 2002 and November 2005, respectively. Therefore, the specific circumstances of Obama’s latest visit also merit attention.
‘…it was at least partly advantageous to the DPRK that Park Geun-hye, dissatisfied as she was with Abe’s standpoint on Japanese war crimes, kept a perceptible distance from Japan throughout her first year in office’
Starting on March 31, the KCNA extensively castigated Obama’s efforts to reinforce the “U.S.-Japan-south Korea military alliance,” which it branded a “criminal nexus.” The prospect of a U.S.-engineered Japanese-ROK rapprochement must have played a major role in that Pyongyang put an end to the short-lived inter-Korean thaw, for North Korean diplomacy had traditionally devoted much energy to hindering cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul. From this perspective, it was at least partly advantageous to the DPRK that Park Geun-hye, dissatisfied as she was with Abe’s standpoint on Japanese war crimes, kept a perceptible distance from Japan throughout her first year in office. Having fiercely condemned Lee Myung-bak’s earlier policy of Japanese-ROK economic and security cooperation, the North Korean leaders had good reason to welcome this new trend, and possibly this is why their initial comments on Park’s policies were of a less abusive nature than their outbursts against Lee had been. As early as August 17, 2012, the KCNA made a statement that implied that the DPRK considered Park to be less pro-Japanese than Lee Myung-bak. From November 2013 to January 2014, Japanese-South Korean relations underwent a particularly tense phase, of which the DPRK could (and did) take advantage. In February and March 2014, the North Koreans engaged both Seoul and Tokyo, presumably to drive a wedge between their two opponents. But if this was their aim, they must have been sorely disappointed when Obama managed to bring about a rapprochement between Tokyo and Seoul. On March 25, at the nuclear security summit held in the Netherlands, he arranged a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders – the very first since they were elected in late 2012. Under such circumstances, it was fairly predictable that the North Koreans reacted to Obama’s visits in Japan and the ROK with the utmost hostility.
Nevertheless, the resurgence of U.S.-Japanese-South Korean trilateral cooperation seems to have been only one of the factors that motivated Pyongyang’s unprecedented racist attack on Obama. A closer textual analysis of KCNA statements reveals that as early as March 6, the agency published an article about George W. Bush whose imagery conspicuously resembled the infamous monkey motive. This article quoted Ri Jong Gil, a private first class of the KPA, as follows: “Some days ago, Bush who was like an animal with rare fur flew into south Korea and dared slander the DPRK, praising human scum as ‘heroes’. … This wolf-like old man is living on bread crumbs thrown by children at a zoo of the U.S.” The fact that the KCNA depicted both U.S. leaders as zoo animals munching breadcrumbs suggests that anti-black racism was not the sole or primary motivating force behind the attack on Obama. In both cases, North Korean propagandists seem to have tried to hit the sorest spot possible. While Obama was compared to a monkey, the KCNA articles published on March 6-7 called Bush an “imbecile,” a “fool,” a “political under-wit,” an “ignoramus” and an “idiot.” To add threat to the insult, Ri Jong Gil declared: “Being a good marksman in my company, I will hunt Bush before any others when a war breaks out. I am fully ready to hunt Bush, and a military feat belongs to me.” Once again, Pyongyang purposefully broke the rules of political correctness.
The textual similarities described above indicate that the attacks on Obama and Bush may have been interrelated in the same way as the outbursts against Obama and Park Geun-hye were. Could have been there a common motivation linking all three assaults with each other? To find the answer, we must examine one more episode when North Korea blatantly violated the principles of political correctness. On April 22 – that is, shortly before the attacks on Park and Obama – the KCNA described Michael Kirby, the head of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) that the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) had established to investigate human rights violations in the DPRK, as a “disgusting old lecher with a 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality.” To hammer the message home, the article added the following comment: “He is now over 70, but he is still anxious to get married to his homosexual partner. This practice can never be found in the DPRK boasting of the sound mentality and good morals, and homosexuality has become a target of public criticism even in Western countries, too.”
‘Indeed, the human rights issue seems to have been a leitmotif in all the four cases when Pyongyang deliberately violated the rules of political correctness’
To be sure, North Korean domestic propaganda was wont to depict homosexuality as a capitalist vice. As Brian Myers pointed out in The Cleanest Race, publications written in Korean – like a novel about the capture of the U.S. spy ship Pueblo – emphatically declared that while Americans might consider homosexuality a human right, “none of that sort of activity will be tolerated” on the soil of the DPRK. Still, the KCNA’s English-language articles seem to have refrained from such open criticism of homosexuality. Before the attack on Kirby, the KCNA largely ignored this subject, and on one particular occasion, it even hypocritically complained of the discrimination that the “gay and lesbian minorities” encountered in the United States (March 3, 2011). It was quite evident that the charges about Kirby’s homosexuality served a specific purpose; that is, they were aimed at discrediting the highly critical report the COI prepared about North Korea. As the KCNA put it, “It is ridiculous for such gay to sponsor dealing with others’ human rights issue.”
Indeed, the human rights issue seems to have been a leitmotif in all the four cases when Pyongyang deliberately violated the rules of political correctness. The attack on Bush was inspired by his meeting with North Korean political refugees, whom the KCNA described as “human scum, who defected to the south, leaving genuine society of the DPRK.” Notably, Ri Jong Gil also castigated Bush for “praising human scum as ‘heroes.’” The assault on Kirby occurred right after he officially informed the UN Security Council about North Korea’s human rights violations. Having accused the COI of such intentions as early as February 21, on April 18 the KCNA complained that “the U.S. is working hard to discuss the ‘human rights’ issue of the DPRK as an official agenda item at the UN Security Council quite contrary to the mandate stipulated in the UN Charter.” The article that called Park Geun-hye a “harlot” and “old prostitute” charged that “she, at her American master’s prodding, is unhesitatingly resorting to such thrice-cursed move to set up an international ‘office for human rights in the north,’ not content with desperately pulling up the DPRK over its inviolable human rights.” (May 2, 2014). Finally, the attack on Obama was also accompanied by outbursts against what the KCNA called the “U.S. ‘human rights’ racket.”
A CHANGE IN TONE
Of course, North Korean complaints about the “human rights racket” were by no means a new phenomenon. Ever since President Bush signed the North Korean Human Rights Act into a law (a step for which he was specifically criticized in one of the abusive articles published in March 2014), Pyongyang has kept accusing the U.S. of interfering in its internal affairs. In April 2014, however, a qualitatively new situation emerged. For the first time, the UN Security Council held a session to discuss the North Korean human rights problem, and the COI report that inspired the session was also of an unprecedented nature. From Pyongyang’s perspective, it was an ominous sign that as many as 10 UNSC members (the U.S., the ROK, Britain, France, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Chile, Argentina, France, Australia and Rwanda) expressed the opinion that the matter should be referred to the International Criminal Court, Jordan adopted a non-committal stance, and only Chad and Nigeria refrained from speaking. Russia and China, on their part, decided not to participate in the session, rather than openly confronting the COI’s proposal.
‘If international norms were being used to judge the DPRK and hold it accountable for its acts, the North Korean leaders wanted to make it clear that they were not bound by such norms’
While the Security Council is unlikely to impose sanctions on DPRK for its human rights violations, the North Korean leaders must have found it uncomfortable that they were becoming increasingly isolated in the UN. As Stephen Haggard pointed out, Pyongyang was losing friends in the General Assembly, too. In December 2011, as many as 123 countries voted in favor of a resolution critical of North Korea’s human rights practices, 51 abstained, three failed or refused to vote, and only 16 voted against the resolution. These voting patterns revealed that a significant number of developing countries – which the KCNA usually depicted as the DPRK’s natural allies – adopted a position similar to Pyongyang’s Western opponents.
In the last analysis, one may conclude that North Korea’s deliberate violation of the rules of political correctness reflected Pyongyang’s dissatisfaction with the public criticism to which the regime was subjected at various global forums. If international norms were being used to judge the DPRK and hold it accountable for its acts, the North Korean leaders wanted to make it clear that they were not bound by such norms. In an article condemning the COI report, the KCNA expressed this attitude as follows: “Witnessing the prevailing jungle law, the people in the DPRK came to keenly realize the truth that the human rights are just national sovereignty” (March 26, 2014). Judging from Pyongyang’s past encounters with the Security Council, the North Korean leaders are particularly irritated by such U.S. diplomatic steps aimed at involving a wide range of states (including North Korea’s putative allies) in putting pressure on the DPRK. Figuratively speaking, they must have considered the COI report a real monkey on their back, and they did not hesitate to respond in kind.
Picture of Park, Obama: Republic of Korea, Flickr Creative Commons
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