Kim Jong-il, supreme leader of North Korea, was a brutal dictator with an arsenal of nuclear weapons presenting the greatest “proliferation danger than any other [country] on the planet.”  He left a legacy of starvation, forced labor camps, and mass executions.

But for the west, he was mainly a punch line.  From Team America: World Police to The Simpsons and 30 Rock, parodies of Kim Jong-il saturated western media, where he was presented as a harmless, effeminate, and delusional autocrat.

In examining the case of Kim Jong-il, Atlantic writer Julian Hatten asks “Why Do We Laugh at North Korea but Fear Iran?” With the North Korean handover of power, Kim Jong-un has suffered much of the same ridicule as his father. Although he tested missiles for a potential attack on the United States, most Americans didn’t bat an eye. As Hatten elaborates:

Just a week or so previous, a propaganda video came out showing images of Barack Obama and American troops on fire, and just before that, a sleeping Korean dreaming about a rocket destroying an American city. At these, we guffawed. We mocked the use of “We Are the World” and music from the video game Call of Duty as a soundtrack; we called one video “bizarre from start to finish“; “hilarious and disturbing “; “hilariously low-rent”; ” cartoonish .” When the United States beefed up its missile defense network in California and Alaska to protect from a possible North Korean attack, we noted they wouldn’t have the brains to actually hit us, and asserted that “no one’s taking them that seriously.”

The emasculated Asian male is another racial role with the most staying power in contemporary Western society, one that also may inspire the Kim family satire.

This stereotype, argues Deanna Pan in this 2012 Mother Jones article, is in full display in the viral Korean pop music video hit “Gangnam Style” (a video which has received over 1.6 billion—yes, that’s right—views). In her article “Is ‘Gangnam Style’ a Hit Because of our Asian Stereotypes?,” Pan examines the role PSY’s race may have played in the worldwide success of the video, noting “PSY is the ‘Asian man who makes it’ because he fits neatly into our pop cultural milieu wherein Asian men are either kung-fu fighters, Confucius-quoting clairvoyants, or the biggest geeks in high school.”

Professor Chrystal Anderson, writer of the blog High Yellow, agrees. Despite the plethora of talented, serious male Asian musicians in Korea and elsewhere, it is the comedic, silly PSY who has been most successful. Anderson, in her post “What Does Gangnam Style Mean for the U.S.?,” writes:

What is missing from much commentary on PSY’s video is the existing American cultural context that embraces stereotypes of Asians while rejecting more realistic portrayals. When people ask why PSY’s video is so popular, this is one of the major issues that goes unanswered. I think more people are laughing at PSY than laughing with him.

Perhaps underlying all these stereotypes is the idea an Asian man simply isn’t as sexy as men of other racial makeups. David Pierson of The Los Angeles Times confronts this notion head on in his 2004 piece “Sex and the Asian Man.” Pierson notes:

The roots of Asian male stereotypes date back 200 years, historians say, when immigrants started arriving in the U.S. en masse as cheap labor. For decades, they encountered a barrage of discrimination that prevented them from owning property or marrying outside their race. Some were barred from heavy industry, so men took on traditionally feminine enterprises like laundry and cooking.

How do such stereotypes impact foreign policy and furthermore, what is the lasting impact of those stereotypes? In this study on school adjustment of Asian-American children, for example, the idea of being a “model minority” can actually have harmful impacts on school-aged children. And with the Asian population said to grow from 5 percent to 9 percent of the U.S. population by 2050 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008), the ways in which stereotypes are perpetuated will have long-reaching consequences.

Equally important is the relationship between stereotypes and fear—Professor Petra Hesse argues in this Center for Media Literacy post that by stereotyping enemies it’s easier to morally justify violence against them.

Despite this history, perhaps the tide is turning. According to a Pew Center Report, intermarriage in the U.S. is increasing. The report further cites that “couples formed between an Asian husband and a white wife topped the median earning list among all newlyweds in 2008-2010 ($71,800).” While additional research regarding the reasons for such a statistic are not cited, “more than one-third of Americans (35%) say that a member of their immediate family or a close relative is currently married to someone of a different race.” This shifting demographic points to a 21st century view of the “Asian male” that may look very different from PSY and Kim Jong-il indeed.

Finally, as if to make the entire spectacle of underlying racism glaringly obvious, in April 2013, hackers broke into the official North Korean twitter accounts and garnered global attention by mocking Kim Jong-un’s penis size.

*Special thanks to Jocelyn Eikenburg of “Speaking of China” for her curatorial insights on this topic.

Image credit: Gilad Rom via flickr

About The Author

Kaitlin Solimine
Co-Founder and Editor, Hippo Reads

Kaitlin Solimine, Co-Founder and Editor, Hippo Reads