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.