The Vacuity of Evil: North Korea and the Asma Syndrome

You’d think that the profession of journalism would have learned something from Vogue‘s embarrassment over its Asma Al-Assad pictorial, but to expect moral depth from some people might be expecting too much.

The Asma Syndrome requires a meeting of evil minds that hold nations with shallow minds that hold syndication agreements, but a little corruption also helps to catalyze things:

The glowing article praised the Assads as a “wildly democratic” family-focused couple who vacation in Europe, foster Christianity, are at ease with American celebrities, made theirs the “safest country in the Middle East,” and want to give Syria a “brand essence.”

Vogue‘s editors defended the controversial article as “a way of opening a window into this world a little bit,” conceding only that Assad’s Syria is “not as secular as we might like.” A senior editor responsible for the story told me the magazine stood by it. A few weeks later, the article and all references to it were removed from Vogue’s website without explanation. In August, The Hill reported that U.S. lobbying firm Brown Lloyd James had been paid $5,000 per month by the Syrian government to arrange for and manage the Vogue article.  [The Atlantic, Max Fisher]

Today, this embarrassment is repeating itself in the media coverage of North Korea — specifically, of Kim Jong Un and his newly revealed wife.

Jean H. Lee of the Associated Press gushes that Ri is “a beautiful young woman … [d]ressed in a chic suit with a modern cut, her hair stylishly cropped.”  The NYT’s Choe Sang Hun sees “all the trappings of a Kate Middleton moment,” and ABC’s Joohee Cho serves up this ipecac smoothie:

The cheerleaders wore Nike caps, danced with South Korean college students, and attended a dinner party with government officials. There’s speculation that she also might have participated in an inter-Korean teenagers’ event in 2003 to plant trees.

But what has attracted the most attention in Seoul today is her beauty and sense of fashion. She wore colorful green, burgundy, and yellow outfits, polka dot patterns, open-toe pumps, and even a chic brooch on one of her dresses. North Korean women usually wear their traditional costume, or monotone black or grey suits to public events.

“I was surprised because she was so up-to-date in fashion. My friends think she’s very pretty too,” said Hyun-Sun Kim, 22, a nurse.

“I think Ri Sol Ju possesses a classic traditional Korean beauty, a round face and clean skin,” said Edward Han, 52, a South Korean businessman. “And she’s got that image of an obedient wife which sure would be popular among the elders especially.” [ABCNews, Joohee Cho]

Cho didn’t mention the reports that a number of Ri’s fellow cheerleaders were sent to the gulag for talking too much about the prosperity they saw in the South.  It’s possible that Cho omitted that aspect to avoid spoiling her story’s perky rhythm, but given the similar lack of depth in her previous reporting, I’ll be charitable and suppose that she’s merely shallow and ill-informed.

All of these reporters neglect to mention that outside of Pyongyang, there’s less demand for plus-size haute couture:

This film comes to us by way of guerrilla journalists who operate without corporate backing or syndication, but with significantly more courage and connection to the values that journalists claim to hold dear.

Thankfully, some journalists still do hold those values dear, and I’m not alone in taking offense at this obscene superficiality.  Ex-Washington Post correspondent and “Escape from Camp 14″ author Blaine Harden takes this all apart brilliantly at Foreign Policy, where he writes:

This clearly calculated narrative has performed public relations magic. Around the world, inquiring minds are eager for more images. Kim Jong Un is “trending” and headline writers are creating eye-candy for the Web. A headline from MSN Now teases “Sorry, ladies, your favorite North Korean dictator is off the market.” We are devouring thinly sourced reports about the self-possessed “mystery woman” turned first lady. In the process, the world’s last totalitarian state has received a soft-focus, Entertainment Tonight makeover.  [Blaine Harden, Foreign Policy]

The entire piece is a must-read (also, thanks for the link, Blaine).

Writing at Destination Pyongyang, a blog that deserves to be on every must-read list, the Daily NK’s Chris Green also sees right through this image-making and the gullibility of the reporters who fall for it.

Or, to put it in the Destination Pyongyang lexicon of the new era, this was a Kim “Disney Move”.  Admittedly, we cannot entirely rule out the idea that a much more profound message was being conveyed to Washington and the wider world by the on-stage antics of Winnie-the-Pooh, Tigger et al. However, the key element of the definition of a Disney Move holds true: Kim Jong Eun’s image-makers employed a fundamentally meaningless PR stunt to intimate the idea of change, without having to actually change anything.

Stated differently, fashion isn’t policy, and in any event, nothing says “Democratic Peoples’ Republic” like a plus-size Mao suit.

Whatever their motivations, reporters who are out of their moral and professional depth are imitating Emily Heil’s remarkably prescient parody by glamorizing the living symbols of a system that starves and murders millions of innocent men, women, and children.

27 comments

  1. Frank Kim says:

    Very well-written.

  2. Alec says:

    I’m waiting for Wikileaks to name and condemn DPRK dissidents so I can find another reason to detest Julian Assange.

    ~alec

  3. Will says:

    The glowing coverage of Assad in Syria and Kim’s wife in NK is a sign of the triumph of style over substance, as well as a denial of the reality of evil. The thing that I despise is when North Korea is presented as “goofy” and “funny” or “quirky.” The word “evil” is rarely used when talking about the regime.

  4. james says:

    i think NK watcher Aidan Foster Carter was directing this to Jean H Lee as well:

    http://m.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/28/north-korea-no-laughing-matter?cat=commentisfree&type=article

  5. Marcin says:

    Meanwhile Comrade Kim has visited a theme park in Pyongyang.

    http://wiadomosci.wp.pl/gid,14791897,gpage,2,img,14791949,kat,355,title,Kim-Dzong-Un-w-parku-rozrywki,galeria.html

    Any clues who is this white guy on this picture, and how the hell he got on that rollercoaster together with Kim Jong Un?

  6. david says:

    Baby Doc Duvalier was an ineffectual pudgy dictator with a pretty wife. There’s some similarity here, except that the Duvaliers were “our” murderous puppets whereas Baby Kim is decidedly theirs.

  7. Will says:

    David I think we have to have some perspective here. Duvalier was an evil man, but he was not a member of the Kim family. Hitler was worse thn your typical Latin America caudillo. The tendency to equate all dictators is s dangerous as judging all crime equally. I am not a fan of robbery or rape, but I don’t think they are equally bad. The unwillingness to recognize gradations of evil is a danger of our age. I would’t want to live in Duvalier’s Haiti or Kim’s North Korea, nut if I absolutely had to choose I would take Haiti because there is a greater chance of me leaving therein one piece.

  8. Alec says:

    David, I get the impression that you cannot express an opinion on foreign state repression if you cannot link it back to American power.

    That was fascinating to see, Will. I’m glad to see that Foster-Carter rips Paul Watson a new one. I suspect the the decision by the CiF section on the Guardian to run it is part of the conflict going on at that organization against the morally depraved lunatics in charge of CiF who’re busy running that newspaper into the group with Watson’s piece as well as much much worse.

    Is Foster-Carter not affiliated with OFK?

    ~alec

  9. Alec says:

    *James, rather.

  10. Alec says:

    And, the link James gave is to the mobile version of the page. The full one is here.

    ~alec

  11. david says:

    Evil is a theological term.

    There are no gradations of evil: to allow that there might be would be to commend one form of evil over another, and that is morally obscene. But even in comparative terms, the Duvaliers rank up there with the Kims. Starving to death in a road camp run by Tonton Macoutes is no different from starving to death in a uranium mine in the DPRK. The ultimate result also is the same: the regime falls but the population is so destitute, diminished, demoralized that two or three generations are needed to restore even a margin of prosperity.

    I applaud the goals of One Free Korea, but the example of Haiti is not conducive to much hope as to the fate of North Korea. The amazing fact of the division of the island of Hispaniola into two distinct cultures indicates that divisions, once created, tend to survive. Germany has only had limited success with the absorbtion of East Germany, and those Germans were far more socially liberated than ever the NorKs have been.

    If unification happened tomorrow, north and south would not be unified for two generations…unless they joined together to invade and overthrow China and seize the mines of Mongolia. They would have the bomb, (and would use it on Beijing,) they would have excellent South Korean equipment and 225,000 well-disciplined North Korean Special Forces… and they would have something in common, the restoration of Manchu rule. Would that be good or evil?

    Likewise, I don’t believe that our sponsorship of the amorphous rebels in Syria over the depraved but previously stable union of Christians and Alawites under the Assad family is wise, or that Assad is “evil”: but his conduct is certainly “wrong.”

    There is a distinct possibility that the Alawites, Christians and Sunni middle classes will move to the coastal range with the Orontes River as a border, and set up a new state (Lattakia) with the active support of Israel and Turkey. Those three countries could then solve the problem of Lebanon by a new invasion designed to join Lebanon and Lattakia as a geographical entity (which it is) and terminate Hizbullah. If that is the case (and I am reasonably sure it will be,) are the Assads evil or good?

    Leave evil to the Pope, it’s difficult enough dealing with right and wrong.

  12. Eric says:

    The DPRK regime seems to be getting better at public relations. And the mainstream media is only too eager to eat it up.

    Anyway, speaking of eating, the Supreme Leader doesn’t seem to be missing any meals.

  13. half canadian says:

    I think an argument can be made that Syria is going through a civil war. But NK represents the worst aspects of medieval systems.

  14. Marcin, the white guy is most likely the son of a diplomat in Pyongyang. A selected group of envoys were invited to bring their wives to the water park’s opening day. The man seated right next to Kim Jong Un in that photo is China’s ambassador to North Korea Liu Hongcai.

    In one photo taken of Ri Sol Ju doing cheerleader duties in Incheon South Korea it is remarkable that she is holding the North Korean flag upside down. As Joshua Stanton inferred above, a bad case of Asma syndrome caused media to miss this mistake.

    http://news.ifeng.com/history/gaoqing/detail_2012_07/27/16356872_0.shtml#p=1

  15. Alec says:

    CC, it’s not one Issac Stone Fish, who – someone correct me if I’m wrong – writes a piece which could out-do Jean Lee in vapidity.

    A restaurant sold burgers and soda (though generic versions; there’s still no Coca Cola in North Korea), [...]

    I aint one for reflexive America-bashing (no, really), but if this is sincere, he comes across as a gormless colonialist Yank for whom political and economic freedom is defined by the availability of the pettifoggeries of his popular culture.

    [...] In the parts of Pyongyang we were allowed to visit, we saw a lot of dour, unsmiling North Koreans. But those at the park appeared genuinely excited and happy to be on the rides; they screamed in fear as the Pirate Ship dipped and clowned around taking photographs in front of an artificial garden. It was a disarmingly normal experience.

    Likewise – if serious – this is a mixture of hilarious confusion and fist-swinging offensiveness.

    Good point about Ro’s flag waving skills. Going back to the ATL piece, there’s an element of what the doe-eyed right-on liberals (and I’m sure Joshua would describe me as one of those) would decry as ‘Eurocentric’ racism in others. Because Kim Jong-eun – like the Assads and Gaddafi Fils before them (the latter was sanitized by a supposed human rights and civil liberties supremo and radical university in the UK) were edukated at their universities and dressed like them and spoke the same talk of anti-imperialism, they were besotted.

    I was watching Quantum of Solace last night in which the villain was informing a credulous audience about the rapacious effects of deforestation pursued by the neo-liberal elite, and meeting with mutterings of approval. Likewise, the UN carbon credit program aint going to be shut down any time soon, despite its blatant – and inevitable – misuse.

    The terms may have changed, but the terms of debate remain the same from world weary colonial workers wanting to bring stability to the uncivilized world.

    ~alec

  16. Glans says:

    To Expect ‘Change’ from DPRK is Foolish Ambition: Spokesman for CPRK

    That’s a headline from KCNA for July 29. I tried to paste the whole article into a comment, but it got filtered. Anyhow, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea says there ain’t gonna be no policy changes, you idiots.

  17. Marcin says:

    @Confucius Confucius

    Thanks. It looks like some kind of policy shift. I’m not aware of any examples of such familiarity with Kim Jong Il.

  18. sean woo says:

    This piece is proof positive of the value of blogs and observers like Josh who can see the BS through the glitz. Well done.

  19. Will says:

    I think we should have a contest to see who could write the best imitation Vogue profile of Ri Sol-Ju – “Sol Sister – Pyongyang’s Glamorous First Lady Makes a Stylish Debut” – complete with photos of the smiling couple. (“Move over, Kate Middleton…”) One big advantage for Vogue…no need to photoshop any of the locals to eliminate pudginess. If NK would allow the modeling agencies access to the camps the agents would be tripping over each other to sign up the women there…ideal weight and body measurements for Vogue’s editors and advertisers. Heck, the Pyongyang Diet has “instant bestseller” written all over it!

  20. Alec says:

    From a comment on an ATL piece by Gene, my co-blogger at Harry’s Place:

    I can’t help thinking that Joan Juliet Buck’s been hung out to dry here and that her biggest sin was bad timing.

    Vogue and Brown Lloyd James wanted her to do a puff-piece and she did.

    CNN, The Times, Huffington Post, The Guardian, the BBC (Syria School), David Lesch, Joshua Landis and others treated Asma, Bashir & the regime in a similar way.

    To avoid falling into a moderation black hole, I’ll just do two links, one from the Guardian, an interview with Ian Black in 2009
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/feb/17/syria-president-bashar-al-assad

    As the world waits for the Obama administration’s first practical steps, expectations of change are high, though tempered by the Gaza war and the result of the Israeli general election, likely to result in a rightwing government under the Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu.

    Assad volunteers he never had high hopes of change in Israel – and certainly not of Netanyahu, who has pledged never to return the Golan Heights to Syria – but puts his faith in a new ­American role.

    “We have the impression that this administration will be different,” he says “and we have seen the signals. But we have to wait for the reality and the results.” He hopes “in principle” to meet Obama, “but it depends on what we discuss. I will be very happy to ­discuss peace.”

    He worries though, about the impact of “other lobbies and other players”.

    (Right so it’s Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu who was tempering hopes of change in Syria. Oh Kay).

    and the other from ABC’s Diane Sawyer http://youtu.be/kfZ9uMvho98 – Oh! What’s on your ipod?

    Their correspondents managed to do a Junblatt and get out when it became clear what Ba’athism was about.
    It’s almost like a game of musical chairs where they all managed to find a seat when the music stopped and Buck was left standing.

    I’m not justifying Buck’s piece in Vogue, it was hideous. But it wasn’t untypical of how the press covered Asma, Bashar & Syria until very recently.

    ~alec

  21. Alec says:

    From a comment on an ATL piece by Gene, my co-blogger at Harry’s Place:

    I can’t help thinking that Joan Juliet Buck’s been hung out to dry here and that her biggest sin was bad timing.

    Vogue and Brown Lloyd James wanted her to do a puff-piece and she did.

    CNN, The Times, Huffington Post, The Guardian, the BBC (Syria School), David Lesch, Joshua Landis and others treated Asma, Bashir & the regime in a similar way.

    To avoid falling into a moderation black hole, I’ll just do two links, one from the Guardian, an interview with Ian Black in 2009
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/feb/17/syria-president-bashar-al-assad

    As the world waits for the Obama administration’s first practical steps, expectations of change are high, though tempered by the Gaza war and the result of the Israeli general election, likely to result in a rightwing government under the Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu.

    Assad volunteers he never had high hopes of change in Israel – and certainly not of Netanyahu, who has pledged never to return the Golan Heights to Syria – but puts his faith in a new ­American role.

    “We have the impression that this administration will be different,” he says “and we have seen the signals. But we have to wait for the reality and the results.” He hopes “in principle” to meet Obama, “but it depends on what we discuss. I will be very happy to ­discuss peace.”

    He worries though, about the impact of “other lobbies and other players”.

    (Right so it’s Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu who was tempering hopes of change in Syria. Oh Kay).

    and the other from ABC’s Diane Sawyer http://youtu.be/kfZ9uMvho98 – Oh! What’s on your ipod?

    Their correspondents managed to do a Junblatt and get out when it became clear what Ba’athism was about.

    It’s almost like a game of musical chairs where they all managed to find a seat when the music stopped and Buck was left standing.

    I’m not justifying Buck’s piece in Vogue, it was hideous. But it wasn’t untypical of how the press covered Asma, Bashar & Syria until very recently.

    ~alec

  22. Alec says:

    Fidd;esticks, here is the thread in question.

    ~alec

  23. Alec says:

    Ah! Apologies for the double post.

    ~alec

  24. [...] media roll-out for North Korea’s erstwhile First Lady has been, to the frustration of many writers, a kind of success for Kim Jong Un.  The preparation of the discourse and its pacing by North [...]

  25. Mojtaba says:

    Maybe for some Ri’s cheerleeder friends was enough to speak of this scene (min2:50) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJwpjeALfSM&feature=related for to be sent in the prison camp.

  26. […] media roll-out for North Korea’s erstwhile First Lady has been, to the frustration of many writers, a kind of success for Kim Jong Un.  The preparation of the discourse and its pacing by North […]

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