Olympic or Potemkin Village?
A Potemkin Village is a place built in a manner similar to, if not with a blueprint shared with any other ordinary village you might see. It requires for its construction a few familiar tools of the superficial carpenter’s trade: geometry for its lines and unnatural orthogonality, color to mask its emptiness, engineering to patch its flimsy holes, a sense of artificial durability, and an overly refined quality to ease its coarse edges. Above all, though, the Potemkin Village must have standing at every corner and perched atop every lamp an uncanny ability to deceive. This quality, and this quality alone, is the village’s essence; without it, the façade crumbles, the charade fails, and the on-looker, eclipsed by a moment of clarity, sees through the curtain and gazes upon the puppeteer and his subtle strings. It’s what raises the village from the ground and plants it within our fertile, gullible minds. We look on, convinced and credulous, seeing what we think is a city and thinking what we see is real.
Precisely this has happened at Pyeongchang, the South Korean town and host city to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. There, many meters and labored breaths above sea level, one finds the Olympic Village—that acropolis upon which, every four years, athletes from around the world ascend to rehearse, prepare, lounge, lust, celebrate, and despair their losses, their gains, their youth, and their sport (as far as the lust is concerned, the Village’s reputation for promiscuity in some ways precedes it). However, this year, the intrigue rests not on the graceful skaters nor the powerful skiers, who, with their effortless suspension of gravity’s law, amaze us with their dizzying spins and vertiginous feats. Rather, our attention has been taken in by some other unnatural phenomenon. It’s that of the Potemkin Village, and it has as its audience an eager, naïve world taking note.
From the capital at Pyongyang, Seoul’s geographical neighbor and philosophical foe, the North Korean dictatorship has shipped across the 38th parallel an athletic delegation to represent the country in the international fair. Along with its ten humble athletes, the Hermit Kingdom has paid the fares for a conscripted claque of two-hundred and thirty fawning cheerleaders, a choreographed team of taekwondo acrobats, a gaggle of faceless fans, a press pool of eager journalists, and—most astonishingly—a diplomatic debutante, the likes of which we’ve not yet seen.
Emerging like a scintilla of feminine grace and hope from the endless depths of a repressive government’s shadows is Kim Yo Jong. Hitherto, we’ve known not of her countenance, her importance, nor even her existence, for that matter, in Asian nor in international affairs. Her profile is sparse, her résumé barren, and her achievements or crimes—assuming, as they do in Pyongyang, that little distinction rests between the two—are unknown. What little we do know of her, though, is that which precedes her in name.
As her infamous appellation implies, she is the sister of Kim Jong Un—the despotic ruler and sadistic captor of the benighted North Korean state. She, it turns out, is one of four siblings with whom Kim Jong Un was reared. It’s strange to think that such a rogue as he was brought through childhood and adolescence not in isolation, as we might’ve expected, but in a litter of once innocent little rascals. However, in no way does this common parentage guarantee Kim Yo Jong’s security or her life (exactly one year to this very day, Kim Jong Un ordered the asphyxiation of his half-brother at a Malaysian airport for reasons unknown and, three years before that, the execution of his uncle for clapping in response to the new leader’s oratory with insufficient zeal).
But these fatal transgressions seem to have been conveniently ignored by a news media always smitten with a seemingly genteel and refreshingly nubile face. Many outlets are still gushing over Kim Yo Jong, calling her “captivating” and a real “show stopper” and failing to see this sister of an autocratic for what she really is—namely, a complicit, and for that reason, a vile, criminal, and ultimately loathsome femme fatale. Beneath her soft feminine features, her gentle, endearing lineaments, and her innocent, translucent skin—so much at odds with the boyish, impish, overfed physiognomy of her older brother Kim Jong Un—is a grotesque realization. She is, in word and in deed, the very definition of a juxtaposition.
You see, Kim Yo Jong isn’t just the pretty little sister of Kim Jong Un, herself a guiltless princess confined to a tower high above the proletariat at Pyongyang. She isn’t some unwilling captive at the capital, some fettered queen, a modern Helen, Cassandra, nor a ravished Sabine stripped of her agency and shackled to a foreign land.
Far from it. She is, both hereditarily and professionally, a vitally important person to the regime. With the title of “Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department” she is responsible for keeping her country’s unenlightened, under-nourished stock of wretches in an interminable cycle of docility, ignorance, and political impotence. It’s her propagandizing, the first half of her job title for which she’s responsible, that makes an existential enemy of liberalism, republicanism, egalitarianism, and freedom. Her messaging, directly or indirectly funneled to North Korean ears, is reliably against the West. More than that, and not in the least surprisingly, it’s vituperatively against the U.S. It’s because of her propagandistic drivel that her benighted nation sighs, thinking there must be more to this life but sees no evidence of it. It’s a population that’s been riven with famine, repressed with pretense, and denied basic human rights to the point of inhumanity, and much of this is thanks to her.
Even so, the news media can’t inoculate itself from its inveterate flaw—its ready willingness to indulge this North Korean ruse and take seriously this woman who is an alabaster farce. It sees in South Korea not the Olympic Village, but the Potemkin Village—a straw house exported from Pyongyang to our dazzled and far too credulous eyes. It sees not the humanitarian crisis that underlies each day, nor the protracted plight of the millions, nor the wanton politicide of the thousands. It sees not the generations ravaged with ancient diseases and atavistic ailments like tapeworms, parasites, tuberculosis, and hepatitis B (all of which are preventable with even a limited administration of modern remedies). Instead, with no more than a facile grin thrown its way, the media finds itself swept up in North Korea’s carefully manicured machinations, beholden to the comely Kim Yo Jong, enjoying the toadying sycophants—all meticulously choreographed for its viewing pleasure. Like watching shadows dance on walls and jesters grin on screens, can we really be so easily taken in? Led through the front door of this Potemkin, rather than Olympic Village are we.