Censorship Human Rights Sports

The media fawning over North Korea’s Censor-in-Chief is indefensible, yet they still defend it.

A MEDIA CRITICISM OF DONALD TRUMP that weighs more heavily than their predictable policy and tribal differences with him is that his tepid repudiation of racists like David Duke and Richard Spencer “normalized” some of America’s most deplorable people. It’s going to be much harder for the Washington Post to make that charge stick after its reporters fawned over one of Earth’s most deplorable people — the Censor-in-Chief of a racist, homophobic, misogynistic regime that stands credibly accused by the United Nations of crimes against humanity on a vast scale:

They marveled at her barely-there makeup 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. 

Here she was, a political princess, but the North Korean “first sister” had none of the hallmarks of power and wealth that Koreans south of the divide have come to expect. In looks-obsessed South Korea, many 20-something women list plastic surgery and brand-name bags as life goals.

Most of all, Kim Yo Jong was an enigma. Just like them, but nothing like them. A woman with a sphinxlike smile who gave nothing away during her three-day Olympic-related visit to South Korea as brother Kim Jong Un’s special envoy.

“I thought Kim Yo Jong was going to be so serious, but she smiled all the time, so she made a good first impression,” said Kwon Hee-sun, a 29-year-old South Korean woman attending the women’s ice hockey match at the Winter Olympics on Saturday night. The Korean teams had been combined — three North Koreans were playing during the game that night. 

“I’m curious about her. I wonder if she’s married. I think it’ll be very meaningful if she comes to the game,” Kwon said. She soon got her wish: Kim Yo Jong showed up to cheer on the united Korean team. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

It’s hard to count the ways in which this is horrible and vapid. First, “bling” is not a word that belongs in any self-respecting newspaper. Second, Fifield’s comparison to Ivanka Trump manages to be both grossly unfair to Ivanka Trump and grating to those who question the legitimacy of her policymaking role. Third — if you’ll pardon my mansplanation — clothes and makeup are things women talk about when they’re objectifying each other. The only legitimate news interest in Kim Yo-jong’s purse is its cost. Its only legitimate significance is the contrast it draws with how poor North Korean women must live until they can live no more.

[She died a few weeks after this video was taken.]

See also this, from Christine Kim of Reuters. And since we’ve crossed this hazardous threshold, by whose standards do we objectify this plain face, stretched over such a wretched soul?

You may find this cruel, but Kim Yo-jong gets off lightly here. In her kingdom, policemen objectify and abuse North Korean women by raping them, after locking their husbands up on trumped-up charges.

By contrast, North Korean escapee Hyeonseo Lee, who met the President in the Oval Office last week, looks like a movie star, is a published author, and speaks fluent English and Chinese. At this Heritage Foundation event, she grasped and applied the concepts behind financial sanctions more deftly than most journalists or think-tank scholars. Despite the very real fear of physical or character assassination, she actively and publicly criticizes the North Korean regime. She even risked repatriation by taking her cause to Beijing. I don’t recall any journalists gushing over Ms. Lee’s shoes or clothes after her White House visit, or over the fact that she and the other refugees who met the President last week charmed him into something no amount of media hectoring could ever achieve — humanizing refugees from a shithole country. I can even hope that these refugees gave Trump a new way of thinking about the likely casualties of another Korean War. That hope certainly has more basis than the idea that this latest of many Olympic visits by North Korea represents a diplomatic breakthrough.

Nor do the Olympics seem to have been a great moment for “engagement,” given the “great care” the North and South Koreans took “to limit interactions” between the North and South Korean players in the “unified” hockey team,” and the fact that the North Korean players have been “shadowed around the clock by two mystery men.” We’d have done better to treat North Korea as we long treated South Africa, when we banned it from the Olympics for its crimes against humanity, even as we made it clear that it would be welcome to enjoy the benefits of civilized humanity again when it lived by the rules of civilized humanity. Why does Pyongyang deserve to be treated by a lower standard?

~   ~   ~

But the most troubling aspect of this coverage by far is the glossing over of Kim Yo-jong’s role in her brother’s regime. She is sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for her part in enforcing North Korea’s smothering censorship of all free expression and dissent (under the provisions of this law, in the final days of the Obama administration, for what it’s worth). Here is how Fifield describes that role, when she does get around to mentioning it:

Kim Yo Jong is officially deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the communist organ that runs the state. In this role, she makes sure that Kim Jong Un is presented as a strong leader and that everything runs smoothly. [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

One lesson this passage teaches us is that if you’ve outsourced your society’s defense against censors and tyrants to journalists who are this easily charmed by them, you’re already doomed. Instead, the normalization of a regime that stands credibly accused of crimes against humanity took a great leap forward this week — or would have, but for the ferocious online backlash against it. So the good news is that, sometimes, we’re still our own best defense against tyrants. Some on the right who loathe the media will cheer that backlash. In the instant case, so do I. But in the broader sense, when the patent (and statistically provable) biases and other failings of our media contribute to their own self-destruction, our information infrastructure is weakened, and so are the fragile links between our government and the governed. Take this example from the New York Times, which quotes a diverse sampling of “experts” from the left and the far left:

When the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, decided to send a large delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea this month, the world feared he might steal the show.

If that was indeed his intention, he could not have chosen a better emissary than the one he sent: his only sister, Kim Yo-jong, whom news outlets in the South instantly called “North Korea’s Ivanka,” likening her influence to that of Ivanka Trump on her father, President Trump.

Much as Ms. Trump has been when traveling with her father, Ms. Kim was closely followed by the news media during her three-day visit to Seoul and to Pyeongchang, which is hosting the Olympics. She flew back to North Korea on Sunday night.

Flashing a sphinx-like smile and without ever speaking in public, Ms. Kim managed to outflank Mr. Trump’s envoy to the Olympics, Vice President Mike Pence, in the game of diplomatic image-making.

While Mr. Pence came with an old message — that the United States would continue to ratchet up “maximum sanctions” until the North dismantled its nuclear arsenal — Ms. Kim delivered messages of reconciliation as well as an unexpected invitation from her brother to the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, to visit Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. [NYT, Motoko Rich & Choe Sang-hun]

Some journalists seem stunned by this reaction to their coverage of Kim Yo-jong. This stuns me. Not only have they refused to acknowledge this gross lapse in their colleagues’ standards, but many journalists and in-house bloggers are now closing ranks to defend the indefensible. In doing so, they’ve mostly managed to compound the error.

I don’t have much patience for this argument. The archives of this blog begin in 2004. I’ve devoted countless hours of my life to writing about human rights in North Korea over the intervening years, through several political transitions. That’s a longer record of “virtue signalling” than Fisher can boast, I suspect.

An even more dishonest defense comes from Washington Post blogger Callum Borchers, who would really like to recast this controversy as a case of Trump’s goon squads waging war against the media. He writes:

Kim Yo Jong went to the Olympics on a propaganda mission for her brother, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, but her trip also helped advance a favorite narrative of President Trump’s — that the media is his enemy.

Except that Borchers is tendentiously selective in his choice of critics to criticize. The day before his blog post appeared, fierce Trump critic Max Boot wrote this in one of his first Washington Post columns:

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 favorite to grab one of the Winter Olympics’ most important medals: the diplomatic gold.” Another declared: “They marveled at her barely-there makeup 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 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, 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 hemorrhage from which he suffered as a result of the beatings endured under interrogation.”

Far from making this system more humane, Kim Jong Un 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 defense minister blown apart with anti-aircraft guns for falling asleep during one of his harangues. [Max Boot, Washington Post]

David French of the National Review opposed Trump so strongly he considered running against him in the 2016 election and suffered some atrocious harassment as a result. French wrote this about the media coverage of Kim Yo-jong:

And the hits kept on coming. On Sunday, the New York Times published a news analysis under the headline, “Kim Jong-Un’s Sister Turns on the Charm, Taking Pence’s Spotlight.” While some of the news articles were more nuanced than the headlines suggested, the positive publicity for North Korea grew so overwhelming that BuzzFeed — yes, BuzzFeed — felt compelled to slam on the brakes. It posted an article calling Kim’s sister a “garbage monster” that began with a simple question: “What the hell is wrong with you people?” That’s the interesting question, isn’t it? Why would so many major media outlets start writing and tweeting similar positive messages about Kim’s sister, North Korea’s alleged “charm offensive,” its alleged diplomatic coups, and even North Korea’s cheerleaders — as if they’d all received the same set of talking points? There’s no one, single answer. A media fail this large displays all the press’s faults at once — partisanship, ideology, and clickbait culture come together to create a storm of stupidity.

Ben Shapiro, another fierce critic of Trump, wrote this at the National Review:

Mix the pure awe the media feel at collectivist displays with more than a touch of fetishism of the exotic, and then combine that with media antipathy to limited-government principles, and you get a peculiar warmth toward some of the worst people on earth. That warmth was on full display in South Korea. The media may blame Trump for their unpopularity, but their unpopularity preceded Trump. If they keep up with this sort of nonsense, it will long outlast him as well.

And here’s what Ethan Epstein wrote at The Weekly Standard, a publication that has alternated between criticism and skepticism of Trump:

It’s likely that only the most hardcore Vogue readers remember it—and presumably Anna Wintour and company are hoping that even they will one day forget it—but back in 2011, the venerable fashion magazine posted a glowing profile of Asma al-Assad. Yes, that Asma al-Assad: the wife of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who has murdered hundreds of thousands of people—largely civilians, and some by chemical weapons—over the past several years while stamping out a rebellion. Even worse, as leaked emails later showed, Asma herself cheered along the slaughter; she was no mere bystander. Shortly after publication, however, “A Rose in the Desert” disappeared. (It’s available now thanks only to the Wayback Machine.) [….]

Kim Yo-jong is no mere spectator to her brother’s misrule of North Korea. She’s an elite member of his regime, as director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea. There she oversees the propaganda regime that constitutes a key component of the enslavement her country’s people. She’s also a member of the Politburo.

The best spin you can put on Borchers’s defense is that he didn’t bother to research his own newspaper for evidence that might undercut the narrative he chose to peddle. But this time, the criticism is more than partisan media-bashing. It is resistance against the normalization of what we should all hold as deplorable. I don’t do gratuitous media bashing here. I suppose I’m probably better known for the journalists I’ve bashed, but I’ve commended plenty of journalists who’ve covered North Korea well, including some with whom I differ on policy (and let’s face it, I differ with all of them on policy). In several cases, I’ve formed lasting personal friendships with reporters. While I’m at it, I’ll commend the Wall Street Journal‘s reporters for contributing relatively little bullshit to this tide.

I’ve also commended Fifield for some of the excellent reporting she has done on human rights, detailing defectors’ accounts of the abuses they’ve suffered. To be clear, I don’t think she harbors any sympathies for Pyongyang. A more plausible explanation is that her sympathies for South Korea’s left-leaning President, Moon Jae-in — who has invested a great deal of his political capital what Fifield calls “South Korea’s dream of making the Winter Olympics the ‘peace Games’” — have robbed her of her objectivity.

But objectivity is the last thing our media should be forfeiting if their most dire and alarmist predictions about Donald Trump have any merit. The reflex to oppose whatever Trump does simply because Trump does it could not have a more perverse result than to legitimize Kim Jong-un. Instead, a few in the media have given Trump an opening to align his critics with the most unpopular regime in the world.

There will be more than a grain of truth to this charge. I’ve long since dismissed CNN’s “Kim Jong Will” Ripley as a shameless careerist who is transparently trying to ingratiate his way into a news bureau in Pyongyang, and the New York Times‘s Choe Sang-hun as a creature of Korea’s left whose biases make his work unreadable, uninteresting, and occasionally embarrassing. Neither can point to another body of more redeeming work. At least Fifield can pin an example of her better reporting to her Twitter profile, as if it were an amulet against the criticism of her more recent work. It is an effective amulet against any charge of pro-Pyongyang sympathies, but it’s no defense against the much simpler explanation that she’s grown too close to the story and the government in Seoul that she owes it to us to cover more critically. I count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 — eight! — stories by Fifield on the topic of the Olympics, all trying to find in them a diplomatic significance that simply isn’t there. If it were there, do you suppose Kim Jong-un would have paraded his nukes through the streets of Pyongyang just as the Olympics opened in Pyeongchang?

When the history of the Korean nuclear crisis is written, the Pyeongchang Olympics will surely be remembered as Moon Jae-in’s Steiners-attack-will-fix-everything moment. In a week or two, the athletes will have all gone home, and South Korea will still be facing the existential threat of a nuclear-armed rival state that refuses all appeals to negotiate its disarmament, cannot coexist with South Korea except by dominating it, openly professes an intent to dominate it, and will not coexist with us in any sustainable way. And as the nuclear crisis intensifies, President Moon will find that his unserious Olympic gambit has made him less popular at home, less trusted by a potential ally in Japan, and deeply distrusted by his American ally for agreeing to a propaganda spectacle with profound alliance implications — all without so much as the courtesy of a consultation first. Better friends would have told him what sycophants would not — how badly this gambit was certain to end for all of them.


  1. Many people are saying that north Korea stole the show, but it seems a little more accurate to say that Moon gave it away. Everything from not using the taekukgi flag, having Kim Yo Jong seated above him, and not restricting the minders that are watching the DPRK athletes. At best the DPRK should not have been allowed to attend, what would have been second best would have been to put them in there place.
    I am sure that Moon will go to Pyongyang, and even with all that happening the DPRK might still conduct some small attack that would kill a few people by the end of this year. The only hope is that conservatives can get their act together in the ROK and get back into power next election cycle.
    Thank you for your blog. It is one point of light in very dark times.


  2. For North Kotea these Olympic Games wee like the ones the Nsxus had back before WWII. Tastes in propaganda change but the basic principle is the same…distracting observers with entertainment and showmanship. The pretty smiling girls with lipstick and nice hair styles are different from the Getmsn athletes Hitler showcased but the underlying principle is the same..,present the youth of a culture in a way that is appealing and distracts from gritty realities. I hear that North Korea left South Korea to pay all the bills for the propaganda trip. Brilliant – get the other guy to pay for your propaganda. A fawning press will do all the broadcasting so the Kims don’t pay a dime for all the free advertising.


  3. I really think that USA should withdraw their troops. All this that happened was really disrespectful and making Pence sit next to JJ’s sister was an offense to all their years of alliance.


  4. I don’t agree with you. No one trusts reporters anymore: we all realize they write senselessly to deadlines. They no longer direct opinion; almost the opposite. Consistency in a viewpoint, such as your blog provides, is far more effective than the vapid effusions of a 30 second promo. Stick with it, and don’t let the occasional burp from the Press deflect you from your mission.


  5. Anna Fifield was describing South Korean reaction to Kim Jo Yong, not fawning over her herself. You are being unfair to her. She is an outstanding reporter and above the petty politics you accuse her of.



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