“The nice Princess of Pyongyang.”
“Pyongyang’s PR Queen.”
The woman who “turns on the charm.”
These are just a handful of the phrases deployed by Western media outlets to portray Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, during her high-profile attendance at the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea from February 9-11.
The use of such terms is far from innocuous. It reflects how women in foreign policy are often represented as more peaceful, passive, and unthreatening than their male counterparts. Who, for instance, has never heard the axiom that a world led by women would be fundamentally more peaceful and stable? While debate rages among academics on the varying factors that may or may not make women more peaceful leaders, such stereotypes are all too often projected onto women, irrespective of their actual actions, intentions, or behavior.
Take Kim Yo-jong as an example. Despite her senior role as deputy director of the state propaganda agency in one of the world’s most repressive and authoritarian regimes, and the fact that little is actually known about her, media outlets cast her as an unthreatening, passive, and charming woman. Many fixated on her physical appearance and demeanor, going so far as to speculate on her pregnancy.
While some writers have since criticized the media frenzy, arguing that we should resist fawning over Kim Yo-jong, few pointed to gender stereotypes that underpinned this admiration. By overlooking these assumptions, however, we fail to expose the highly gendered nature of mainstream accounts of women in international relations and foreign policy.
Seeing women as natural peacemakers has a long history across cultures and continents. Through various processes of socialization, men and women are often associated with gender-specific traits: men are viewed as strong, aggressive, rational, and courageous; women are seen as passive, peaceful, emotional, charming, and seductive. These binary distinctions contribute to men and women’s unequal treatment, not least in the male-dominated realm of foreign policy.
Manifestations of strict gender identities have been recurring throughout the Korean Peninsula crisis, not least with U.S. President Donald Trump’s boasts of possessing a “much bigger” and “more powerful” nuclear button than his North Korean counterpart. Gender bias is also found in media portrayals of Kim Jong-un and his sister, with the former depicted as an irrational, violent megalomaniac, while the latter’s “charm offensive” conquers the hearts and minds of South Korea.
Likewise, it is no coincidence that Trump and Kim Jong-un both chose to send close female relatives to the Olympic Games, likely in a bid to soften the public images of their respective countries. Ivanka Trump’s arrival at the closing ceremony was first and foremost ceremonial, and seen by some as an attempt to counterweight the coverage of Kim Yo-jong. It demonstrates the potential for stereotypes to be deployed by men in power for public diplomacy objectives.
These stereotypes are powerful and can profoundly shape the way we think and act. If we leave unquestioned the media narratives that reflect them, it will serve to maintain the sort of social hierarchies that contribute to ostracizing women from the realms of global politics and diplomacy, where traditional notions of masculinity – such as might, violence, and power – have historically prevailed.
By relying on such highly gendered representations of women, the media reproduces and perpetuates assumptions that underpin the gender inequality pervading global politics. It narrows the space at the top of the foreign policy realm not only for alternative policy proposals, but also for women and men alike who do not fit a narrow typecast.
One of the stated aims of International Women’s Day is to press for progress on gender parity. In this sense, achieving equal treatment in foreign policy partly requires an understanding that the historical underrepresentation of women in diplomacy is closely linked to how gender stereotypes are constructed and maintained in mainstream media.
Identifying and questioning the biases that shape television, print, and online narratives will likely help women shed the stereotypical projections that endanger their fair treatment.
Antoine Got and Danny Anderson hold Master degrees in International Relations and International Studies & Diplomacy, respectively. The views expressed here are their own.