It’s become a familiar pattern. In the manic pursuit of traffic, accolades, or any number of perverse incentives that have little to do with good journalism, the mainstream political press stumbles into a controversy. The controversy prompts a backlash mostly among, but not limited to, conservatives and is summarily disregarded as bad faith posturing. Pretty soon, we’ve all forgotten what the subject of the controversy was in the first place as we ease into familiar forms of partisan warfare like a warm bath. This was the trajectory of the scandalous coverage of North Korea’s diplomatic presence in South Korea for the Olympics, but the tribal animosities between media creator and consumer must be put aside here. The North Koreans’ are playing a 70-year-old game, and the press would do well to avoid unwittingly advancing North Korean objectives.
The latest cycle began as so many do in the age of the advertising-generated revenue model: with the reckless pursuit of eyeballs. The opening ceremonies at the Pyeongchang Olympics featured the usual pomp and ceremony; hundreds of moving parts, meticulously trained performers, and a fleet of independently operated drones that made artwork suspended in the sky. Ho hum. What truly fascinated the Western press was the appearance of North Korean despot Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, in the dignitaries’ box just feet away from Vice President Mike Pence. She scowled at Pence. Pence sat stoically for North Korea’s athletes. Everyone played their roles. It was all rather perfunctory. What was remarkable, however, was the extent to which the press bought in to the alleged sincerity of the display.
What began as a cautious appreciation for the contempt the North Korean delegate cast in the vice president’s direction quickly transformed into something more menacing. To retroactively justify what was at first a partisan reflex, the press fabricated a narrative in which Kim Yo-jong was depicted as the belle of the Olympic ball. CNN basked in the “foil” she presented to the idea of North Korea as “militaristic” and quoted sources who said she demonstrated that women could lead, even if she’s only leading an open-air prison. The Washington Post cooed over the “barely-there makeup,” “simple purse,” and “no-nonsense” hairstyle of “the Ivanka Trump of North Korea.” “North Korea has emerged as the early favorite to grab one of the Winter Olympics’ most important medals,” Reuters remarked, “the diplomatic gold.”
Conservatives failed to ignore this unctuous display, providing journalists an excuse to dismiss the substance of their criticisms as mere virtue signaling. To the extent that the press did change course, it was to address their critics by passive-aggressively doubling down on the original offense. You could be forgiven for thinking that, at this point in the cycle, none of this has much of anything to do with North Korea.
On Monday, Reuters noted that this “prim, young woman with a high forehead and hair half swept back quietly gazes at the throngs of people pushing for a glimpse of her,” kept her “head held high” as she returned to her Stalinist home. New York Times observed the “sprinkle of freckles” on Kim’s cheeks and set the bar for success at ground level when it noted that her capacity to smile “seemed to endear her to some observers.” The Times was most direct in its attempt to refute its conservative critics. Kim Yo-jong, they noted, appeared at the presidential palace, dined with the South Korean president, was asked to make impromptu toasts, and delivered her brother’s invitation to host his South Korean counterpart in Pyongyang. Pence, meanwhile, sought to keep his distance from North Koreans and so found himself on the outside presumably looking in. North Korea’s display of “soft power” amid a “charm offensive” had simply outflanked the vice president.
It is hardly remarkable that a “Sunshine policy” administration in Seoul would seek rapprochement with North Korea. “Sunshine” presidents are ideologically predisposed to accept at face value any overture from the North Korean regime, no matter how insincere. The history of those overtures suggests that they serve only to relieve immediate crises in North Korea and preserve the regime’s viability rather than advance the prospects for peace.
Moreover, the notion that Mike Pence blew it by failing to applaud the joint North-South Korean athletic delegation is as of yet unsupported. When South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced that there would be a joint Korean display at the opening ceremony, it was met with groans from the Korean public. Here was a hard-won symbol of national pride that the North was simply appropriating, and that the country’s president was just giving away.
It’s hard to appreciate any of this if you’re inclined to view Korean politics through the chauvinistic prism of American domestic affairs.
Covering Korean politics like a trite fashion show isn’t harmless; it aids North Korea’s objectives. The chief preoccupations of “Sunshine” presidents—reconciliation and reunification—haven’t changed since Kim Dae-jung served in the Blue House, but South Korea surely has. It is a stratified society with an increasing mistrust for its representative government. With North Korea’s nuclear program ramping up, the public has rediscovered the value of the alliance with the United States, but that condition shouldn’t be taken for granted. Every so often, mass anti-U.S. demonstrations erupt over tensions involving the military’s presence on the peninsula or suspect trade practices. The U.S., too, is a nation with evolving views on the utility of alliances. Republicans in thrall to vaguely isolationist sentiments and progressives for whom Donald Trump, not the Kim regime, is the gravest threat to world peace are coming to terms with the idea that South Korea, and the U.S., might be better off alone.
Pyongyang has one goal: to decouple Seoul from Washington and weaken the U.S. military presence on the peninsula as a prelude to reunification on their terms. That is achieved through public opinion. You are the battlefield on which this struggle is being fought. Journalism that sees North Korean efficacy in blinkered South Korean credulity helps Pyongyang. Journalism that conveys the idea that the Republic of Korea is ungrateful to the United States helps Pyongyang. Journalism that glosses over North Korea’s sadism, criminality, and the threat it poses to world peace helps Pyongyang. Journalism that glamorizes the head of North Korea’s propaganda and state security apparatuses simply because she’s not Mike Pence isn’t journalism.