The World

North Korean Racism Rears Its Ugly Head

A statue of former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung in the North Korean border town of Siniuju, across from China’s northeastern city of Dandong. 

Photo by Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

Usually, when North Korea’s state propagandists want to troll the world, such as when they called South Korean President Park Geun-hye a “despicable whore” last week or America a “living hell” earlier this week, they provide an English  translation.

So it’s a little surprising that back on May 2 the Korean Central News Agency published its racist screed directed at President Obama only in Korean, thus risking it being missed in the United States entirely. However, the piece was noticed by an American blogger and, today, reported in the Washington Post.  

The diatribe calls Obama a “dirty fellow” who “still has the figure of a monkey while the human race has evolved through millions of years,” and declares that he should “live with a group of monkeys in the world’s largest African natural zoo and lick the breadcrumbs thrown by spectators.”

What exactly is going on here? The screed fits in with the argument of journalist and North Korea watcher B.R. Myers, who writes in his book The Cleanest Race that the country’s official ideology is defined far more by racism than Marxism. Myers summarizes the country’s ideology as “The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.” He also suggests that “Juche,” the country’s defining political creed, is more like what is traditionally considered the extreme right than the extreme left of the political spectrum and that the country is “ideologically closer to America’s adversaries in World War II than to communist China and Eastern Europe.”

North Korea’s doctrine of racial superiority is more typically directed at more local targets—the “impure” South Koreans or inferior Japanese—but as my former colleague Isaac Stone Fish notes, this isn’t the first time black people have been specifically singled out for abuse. In a 1985 propaganda film produced by the government, North Korean students captured by the Americans “meet a cartoonishly incompetent African-American slave – played by a Korean in blackface – who is too dumb to speak.” The researcher Benjamin Young, quoted by Stone Fish, writes, “”The North Koreans understood that African-Americans were second-class citizens in the U.S. but they were also represented as less intelligent (if not subhuman) in North Korean propaganda.”

This is an interesting contrast to Soviet propaganda, which frequently highlighted racism in America during the civil rights movement to counter criticism of its own human rights record. The 1936 film Circus, for instance, tells the story of an American circus performer who is ostracized after giving birth to a mixed-race baby but finds acceptance in the supposed multicultural utopia of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The Kim government’s racism may be par for the course, but it does seem lately that the government has been cranking up its trolling operation. This comes at the same time that reports have surfaced suggesting that the Chinese government, North Korea’s most important international benefactor, is drawing up contingency plans for regime’s collapse. China denies it, but perhaps the propagandists in Pyongyang are feeling a bit more insecure than normal.