Stop the fawning over Kim Jong Un's sister

As far back as 1962, the historian and author Daniel J. Boorstin lamented the replacement of real news with the "pseudo-event", a "synthetic novelty" manufactured by "round-the-clock media", as well as the replacement of the hero - someone such as Joan of Arc, William Shakespeare or George Washington "who has shown greatness in some achievement" - with the "celebrity", whom the author described as "a person who is well known for his well-known-ness".

Little could Mr Boorstin have imagined that pseudo-events and celebrities would take over not just our culture but also our politics.

After years of drowning in coverage of Princess Diana, Madonna, Beyonce and Jay-Z, The Real Housewives, Kate Middleton and, of course, the Kardashians, it was only natural that voters would select a reality-television star as president.

The cult of celebrity, having already disfigured US domestic politics, is now infecting foreign policy as well.

Ms Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the despot Kim Jong Un, is being treated as if she were one of the Spice Girls. A headline blared: "Kim Jong Un's sister is stealing the show at the Winter Olympics." One article claimed: "North Korea has emerged as the early favourite to grab one of the Winter Olympics' most important medals: the diplomatic gold."

Another declared: "They marvelled at her barely-there make-up and her lack of bling. They commented on her plain black outfits and simple purse. They noted the flower-shaped clip that kept her hair back in a no-nonsense style."

The breathless coverage given to Ms Kim's visit - the first by a member of the royal Kim clan to the South - is not only vapid, but also dangerous and disgusting. This is the modern-day equivalent of celebrating Paula Hitler, Adolf's sister, or Joseph Stalin's children, except that Ms Kim is more complicit in totalitarianism than they were.

South Korean President Moon Jae In and his wife Kim Jung Sook (both in front), with North Korea's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam and Ms Kim Yo Jong, at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Pyeongchang last Friday.
South Korean President Moon Jae In and his wife Kim Jung Sook (both in front), with North Korea's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam and Ms Kim Yo Jong, at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Pyeongchang last Friday. PHOTO: REUTERS

The United Nations' Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea concluded in 2014 that the North is guilty of "crimes against humanity", including "extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation". As the UN experts put it: "The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world."

The report goes on to detail a sickening litany of abuse. To take one example at random, consider the actions of the State Security Department (SSD), North Korea's secret police: "In August 2011, SSD agents arrested the 17-year-old son of the witness in Hoeryoung City, North Hamgyong province, for watching South Korean movies. He was so badly tortured that his left ankle was shattered and his face was bruised and grossly disfigured. The SSD only released him after the family raised a large bribe. Shortly after his release, the boy died from a brain haemorrhage from which he suffered as a result of the beatings endured under interrogation."

Far from making this system more humane, Mr Kim has added some perverse touches of his own. He has ordered the executions of his own uncle and half-brother - in the latter case using a weapon of mass destruction (the deadly nerve agent VX) at a busy international airport.

He also reportedly had his own defence minister blown apart with anti-aircraft guns for falling asleep during one of his harangues.

None of this is a reason for President Donald Trump to preemptively attack North Korea because it is developing a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States. Deterrence and containment are the right way to deal with the North, just as we have dealt with the far bigger threat from Russia for decades.

But nor should revulsion at Mr Trump's saber-rattling lead anyone to go to the opposite extreme and imagine that North Korea is a possible partner for peace. The only reason Mr Kim is reaching out to South Korea - he has offered to host a summit in Pyongyang for President Moon Jae In - is to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul.

The Kim family strategy has remained unchanged since the 1950s: Convince the United States to remove its troops from South Korea, and coerce the South into reunification on the North's terms.

In other words, extend the gulag across the entire Korean peninsula. It is pathetic to see so much of the media play into Mr Kim's evil hands with breathless coverage of his little sister at the Winter Olympics - a "pseudo-event" if there was one.

WASHINGTON POST

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2018, with the headline 'Stop the fawning over Kim Jong Un's sister'. Print Edition | Subscribe