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 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, Beyoncé 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 our domestic politics, is now infecting foreign policy as well.
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."
Poor Vice President Pence. After agreeing to play second fiddle to a third-rate celebrity in the White House, he found himself at the Olympics overshadowed by someone who makes President Trump look like an intellectual and moral giant. The breathless coverage given to Kim Yo Jong's visit — the first by a member of the royal Kim clan to the South — is not only vapid, it is dangerous and disgusting. This is the modern-day equivalent of celebrating Paula Hitler, Adolf's sister, or Joseph Stalin's children, except that Kim Yo Jong is more complicit in totalitarianism than they were.
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.
None of this is a reason for Trump to preemptively attack North Korea because it is developing a nuclear-tipped ICBM 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 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 Kim Jong Un is reaching out to South Korea — he has offered to host President Moon Jae-in for a summit in Pyongyang — 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 Kim's evil hands with breathless coverage of his little sister at the Winter Olympics — a "pseudo-event" if there was one.
Max Boot, a Washaington Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of "The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam."