The Ivanka Trump of North Korea? Oh, Please

February 15, 2018

Frank Bruni 

Kim Jong-un, center, the leader of North Korea, with the delegation who attended the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, including his sister, Kim Yo-jong. CreditKcna/European Pressphoto Agency

It’s not often that I’m offended on Ivanka Trump’s behalf, but I now find myself in that exceedingly strange position. And I clearly have some explaining to do.

Last week the Winter Olympics got underway in South Korea. The country’s archenemy, North Korea, sent a delegation of athletes, cheerleaders and so-called dignitaries. This was a big development, given that North Korea is a rogue state run by a homicidal fanatic, Kim Jong-un, who gleefully threatens to nuke other countries, with the United States at the top of his list. So a buffet of news stories and a smorgasbord of tweets were obviously warranted.

But I saw far too little coverage that gasped at the audacity of the North Koreans’ attempts to pawn themselves off as the good-natured emissaries of a normal place. I saw too much that marveled, almost appreciatively, at their wiles.

I saw rapt descriptions of the outfits and expressions worn by Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, the first member of her family to visit South Korea since the Korean War. I saw the phrase “charm offensive.”

North Koreans as international coquettes looking for a diplomatic do-over? If you can square that with Otto Warmbier’s moribund condition when he was finally sprung from a North Korean gulag and mailed back, like expired meat, to his devastated parents, then you’re a nimbler moralist than I.

Where does Ivanka come in? The response to North Korea’s overtures at the Olympics was epitomized by what quickly became a popular characterization of Kim Yo-jong. South Korean journalists called her “North Korea’s Ivanka.” Straight-faced American journalists repeated it.

I get it. Both young women attempt to put a pretty, pert face on a clan — and a government — of transcendent ugliness. Both decided to do that in the context of triple axels and the luge. Ivanka is due in South Korea for the closing ceremony.

But not all ugliness is created equal, Donald Trump is not Kim Jong-un, the United States is nothing like North Korea and to come anywhere near that suggestion is nuts. Be outraged about what’s going on in America. Don’t be ridiculous.

In doing her father’s bidding, Ivanka Trump is trying to tell the world that a sexist really wants to empower women, that a racist really cares about equal opportunity and that a narcissistic plutocrat is acting in the high-minded interests of the little people. She’s willfully delusional, totally complicit and compiling one hell of an Instagram feed, which is what she’s ultimately all about.

In doing her brother’s bidding, Kim Yo-jong is airbrushing a dictator who authorizes public executions that, according to defectors, must be watched by all adult citizens, so that they can savor the wages of disobedience. She is diverting attention from his roles in the murders of his half brother, who was smeared with a fatal toxin while walking through an airport, and of many senior government officials, slaughtered in grotesque ways. Is it any wonder that she’s making the effort? The alternative, apparently, is being drawn and quartered.

So bizarrely nonjudgmental was some of the chatter about her that BuzzFeed News published what it cheekily labeled a public service announcement. The headline, referring to a disapproving glance that she’d thrown at Vice President Mike Pence, reminded Americans that she was “not your new fave shade queen,” and the article bluntly asked those who seemed to be so taken with her, “What the hell is wrong with you people?”

In National Review, David French floated some answers, positing that hatred of President Trump was so blinding that his opponents regarded all international incidents as potential diminutions of his administration. To these appalled critics, Pence exists on the same level as Kim’s sister — or even below it. French filed this under the rubric of overheated partisanship, which is indeed a problem but not tidily applicable here. Anti-Trump fervor has as much to do with his out-of-bounds actions and words as with any reflexive tribalism.

And Trump himself has been guilty of galling equivalences. When he campaigned for the presidency and made goo-goo eyes at Vladimir Putin, he famously minimized Putin’s reputation for having journalists and political adversaries eliminated, telling Joe Scarborough, “Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe.”

Both French’s complaint and the BuzzFeed News article touch on something troubling and important: a tendency — in the media and beyond it — to treat all of public life as a pageant and a public relations contest, with winners and losers determined less by their souls than by their sizzle. Kim Yo-jong got points for being a fascinating distraction. That’s a role that Trump has long played.

But there can be no mistake: America is in a rotten moment. North Korea is rotten to the core.