- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia editor at Foreign Policy, where he edits, reports, and writes stories from across the region. Previously a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, Isaac wrote stories on such subjects as the Dalai Lama’s effect on international trade, China’s love affair with rogue states, and crystal meth in North Korea, a country he has visited twice. A fluent Mandarin speaker, Isaac spent seven years living in China prior to joining FP; he has traveled widely in the region and in China. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
In a statement on Wednesday, a North Korean government spokesman complained about "the venomous swish" of the skirt of South Korea’s female President Park Geun-hye. North Korea seems to take a certain joy in sexist insults. The AP reports that in 2009, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry called then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "a funny lady" who sometimes "looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping," while a North Korean state radio program called then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "a hen strutting around in the White House, crowing arrogantly" and "a bitch running riot on the beach."
I don’t know how it sounds in Korean, but "the venomous swish of the skirt" is an unexpectedly melodic phrase in English. "It’s beautifully dense, isn’t it?" said Christopher Baswell, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, who prefaced his comments with saying that the words might have a very different meaning in Korean, a language he doesn’t speak. Terry Castle, a professor at Stanford and the author of "Boss Ladies, Watch Out! Essays on Women, Sex and Writing" also cautioned that she doesn’t speak Korean and doesn’t know the original context, but said that the phrase "brings to mind the cross-cultural association between woman and serpents…. the serpentine in a lot of mythological contexts summons up deceitful and dangerous woman."
The image of snake, with its associations of deviousness underfoot, mixes with swish, which in American English connotes homosexuality. "You have an odd combination of phallic and vaginal," he said. That combination also appears in the insult to Rice. "Hen’s don’t crow or strut. It’s supposed to be a rooster — that’s really playing on inappropriate gender activity." Castle notes the "Chaucerian" quality of that insult; and compares it the "cosmological infamy or calumny" often featured in Iranian propaganda. Calling someone "the Great Satan sticks in people’s mind more than a hen running around," she said.
And poor Hillary, Castle added, always getting assailed with sexist comments. Castle said the schoolgirl part suggests "naivete and in over her head, while the pensioner "de-sexualizes her."
What did Baswell think? "It’s very interesting the degree of sexual anxiety and sexual hostility that both those images imply."
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest. Prior to Fletcher, he taught at the University of Chicago and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Drezner has received fellowships from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Harvard University. He has previously held positions with Civic Education Project, the RAND Corporation, and the Treasury Department.| Daniel W. Drezner |