The Internet Likes Kim Yo Jong a Little Too Much

Online crushes on the possible next North Korean leader fit an old pattern of the dangerous and erotic Orient.

Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, attends an ice hockey match during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, on Feb. 10, 2018.
Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, attends an ice hockey match during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, on Feb. 10, 2018. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As soon as speculation started about the unknown fate of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the internet began heaving with a disturbing appreciation of Kim’s younger sister and possible successor, Kim Yo Jong. The idea that the 32-year-old would soon ascend to North Korea’s top spot triggered a range of fantasies. Internet users expressed their wish for Kim to torture them, choke them, or sentence them to hard labor; others were inspired to transform her into a winsome anime heroine or produce high-octane video montages in the style usually reserved for K-pop stars.

Many female political figures are judged in terms of their sexual desirability in a way their male counterparts rarely face. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was derided for her “cankles,” while former Alaska Gov. and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was praised for her MILF status.

This can produce some unlikely fixations. Margaret Thatcher, who was 53 when she became prime minister of the United Kingdom, captured the erotic imagination of a startling number of her male contemporaries, with writers as prominent as Christopher Hitchens, Kingsley Amis, and Anthony Powell all admitting to lustful feelings for the head of government. Former French President François Mitterrand ascribed to her “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.” The combination of power and femininity has attracted fantasies as far back as Cleopatra; Elizabethan diaries record the appearance of the Virgin Queen in erotic reveries, while the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso told an English friend of Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret: “If they knew what I had done in my dreams with your royal ladies, they would take me to the Tower of London and chop off my head!”

But the outpouring of prurient interest in Kim represents an intersection of these erotic fantasies with the potent force of Orientalism—in which the Western audience projects fantasies onto the unknown East and at the same time seeks to render it intelligible with symbols and generalizations.

In East Asia, this hasn’t been just about female leaders but the combination of feminine appeal and societies deemed dangerous or mysterious. For instance, there has been little erotic interest from Western audiences in either former South Korean President Park Geun-hye or Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Both states are secular democracies and staunch allies of the United States.

On the other hand, Western media spent many years fawning over the beauty of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007. Bhutto, an elegant University of Oxford graduate, represented the West’s hope that Pakistan would hold a bastion of democracy and secularism in a rapidly Islamizing region of the world. An obituary after Bhutto’s death in the American Prospect reflected that Bhutto, “the first democratically-elected woman to lead a Muslim nation, looked like a Disney drawing of a beautiful fairytale princess from an animated fable set somewhere in the mysterious Orient.” In recent years, the glamorous Queen Rania of Jordan, a vocal advocate of women’s rights, has received a similar fawning media treatment.

Long before any of these women were born, the West had a fascination with a woman whose image mirrors Kim Yo Jong’s more closely than anyone else: Empress Dowager Cixi, the original “dragon lady.” Cixi ruled, at least in name, over China during the dying decades of the Qing dynasty, a period during which foreigners were making inroads into the Middle Kingdom and finding themselves frequently and violently repelled, as in the Boxer Rebellion. Westerners were desperate to understand the inner workings of the Manchu court, but information was scarce, thus providing fertile ground for apocryphal tales, speculation, and outright fantasy.

Those who thought the Qing might be amenable to reform were inclined to view Cixi as a virtuous widow and mother, not unlike her contemporary Queen Victoria. Cixi’s American portraitist, Katherine A. Carl, wrote in 1906 that the empress dowager was a “kindly looking lady” and the “very embodiment of the Eternal Feminine.” More often, however, Westerners (and Chinese intellectuals) painted a portrait of Cixi as a scheming, sinister tyrant, capable of the most horrible crimes imaginable.

These accounts were frequently accompanied by tales of the lady’s insatiable and predatory sexual appetite. By the late 19th century, a genre of literary pornography had arisen devoted to imagining Cixi’s sexual escapades, starting from her origins as a concubine and extending to endless liaisons with court eunuchs and ministers. Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, a British adventurer who haunted the bathhouses of Peking around the turn of the century, famously claimed in his so-called memoir Décadence Mandchoue to have conducted an affair with Cixi and that the empress dowager would routinely sodomize him with her oversized clitoris.

Of course, this is merely the most outrageous of Backhouse’s many invented stories about Cixi. But the average Western man at the time was as ignorant of China as of the clitoris, and the kingdom’s female sovereign was an appealing symbol to latch on to. By the early 1900s, Cixi had become a cultural fad, and her portrait circulated all around the globe. According to Chunmei Du, the author of a book about the late Qing eccentric Gu Hongming, commercial printing houses in Shanghai “sold Cixi’s portraits alongside those of celebrity prostitutes, foreign beauties, and martyrs executed during the Hundred Days’ Reform movement.” A century before Twitter memes and DeviantArt, “Cixi became one image among many that could be bought and consumed, sent in postcards around the world with captions in foreign languages.”

It’s not surprising that a similar erotic fascination has followed Kim Yo Jong, who could become the leader of the most tantalizingly mysterious nation in the world. From the time of her debut on the international scene in 2018 at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Kim has been by turns characterized in foreign media as a harmless angel and a terrifying dragon lady. A columnist for a South Korean paper complimented Kim’s “fit and nimble” physique; international media analyzed her outfits and makeup; some even likened her to Ivanka Trump—a female presence softening the image of the authoritarian man in charge. “If Kim Jong Un had intended to deploy his baby sister as a weapon, he was gambling that the world believes in the image of young, Asian women as incontrovertibly obliging,” Jiayang Fan of the New Yorker wrote at the time.

But, as Fan noted, the media narrative about Kim flipped in less than two days, with Western press suddenly ascribing to her sinister motives. A Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Kim Yo-Jong is a Twisted Sister” warned that Kim, “with her freckles and enigmatic smile, is a trained and trusted royal brainwasher for a family regime.”

Once again, Western anxiety about an unknown regime is being channeled into fear and fantasy about sexual manipulation by a female sovereign—compounded by internet thirstiness that puts extremely hot and extremely online women (“e-girls”) on a pedestal and fetishizes male subservience. At any rate, as long as North Korea remains a nation of danger and mystery, the internet will keep simping for Kim Yo Jong.