There were red faces in newsrooms across the world when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared, in conditions of apparently robust health and considerable jollity, in film and images put out by Pyongyang’s state-run news organization Korean Central News Agency on May 2.
Why the red faces?
Because, multiple reports, as well as a multitude of reports of reports, had alleged that, amid a three-week absence in the midst of a global pandemic, Kim, the leader of a nuclear armed state that is at odds with much of the world, was incapacitated, brain dead – or plain dead.
Clearly – unless North Korea is engaged in a truly in-depth (and unlikely) disinformation campaign involving a body double or the release of old film and photos – he was not.
How could so many media get such a big story so very wrong?
After op-tier international outlet CNN reported that Kim was gravely ill, an explosion of reports was ignited. So were predictions as regards who would take over, with most speculation focusing on his younger sister and close aide, Kim Yo Jong.
It was not just media. Two prominent North Korean defectors, Ji Sung-ho and Thae Young-ho, both elected to the South Korean parliament in April, bullishly told media that they were convinced Kim was in poor health or worse.
“What I can say 99% for sure is that he died after undergoing heart surgery over the weekend,” Ji said in an interview in South Korea.
It was not the first time a North Korean leader’s condition had been misreported.
The Tokyo correspondent of the conservative Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s best-selling newspaper, reported the murder of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, in November 1986. It detailed how a group of North Korean troops had fled to China after their failure to kill Kim, but that other members of their group had succeeded in the assassination plot.
It also cited a report in a North Korean propaganda village near the border with the South that Kim had been shot to death. None of this would prove to be true.
Kim Jong-il, the father of Kim Jong-un, was rumored to have been shot dead by several local media reports in November 2004. Untrue.
In August 2008, South Korean media cited a book entitled The True Character of Kim Jong Il, written by Toshimitsu Shigemura, a former professor at Waseda University. The book alleged that Kim Jong-il died in 2003 and that the man running the country was a stand in.
If so, he did a good job, as Kim did not officially pass until 2011.
CNN cited a senior North Korean defector who reported that Kim Jong Un had poisoned Kim Kyung Hee, his aunt. Kim Kyung Hee was married to Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who Kim Jong Un had ordered executed in 2013.
However, Kim Kyung Hee reappeared – very much alive – in a KCNA report in January 2020.
Indeed, reports of the executions, imprisonment or exile of North Korean officials are frequently reported in both South Korean and global outlets. Almost as frequently, these reports prove wrong when the subjects resurface subsequently.
Defectors who had said Kim was gravely did so on the basis that he did not appear at the country’s most important national event – his grandfather’s birthday. Kim had also failed to appear at a missile test, and on the founding date of the North Korean armed forces.
“I think it was premature to judge Kim Jong-un dead just because he didn’t attend the event for celebrating his grandfather’s birth,” said Baek Jin-kyung, a researcher at Seoul’s East Asia Institute – albeit, with the benefit of hindsight.
North Korean defectors have detailed knowledge about the country and many maintain sources north of the border via clandestine sources. But they are often highly critical of their former home, which may inculcate bias, with wishful thinking affecting analyses.
Defectors use their backgrounds to dazzle South Koreans into believing fake news, alleged the leftist Democratic Party, which demanded the rightist United Future Party punish the two lawmakers.
“North Korea will laugh at their remarks. How shameful is this?” asked Jeong Se-hyung, executive vice-chair of the National Unification Advisory Council.
CNN quoted an anonymous US government official as the source for its story, which appeared days after Daily NK, a website based in Seoul that covers North Korea issues by garnering comments from anonymous sources in North Korea, had reported that Kim had undergone heart treatment.
The report, due to CNN’s high visibility, was picked up by media around the world – including Asia Times – sparking waves of speculation. The response from US President Donald Trump was muddled, while the South Korean government’s repeatedly stated position was that that it “had not detected suspicious movements” in North Korea.
Seoul’s response, of course, assumed that such movements would be visible if Kim, indeed, had been ill, despite the opacity of the North Korean state. Seoul subsequently rolled out a big gun – Moon Chung-in, a special adviser for South Korean President Moon Jae-in with extensive experience in North Korea.
“Kim Jong-un is alive and well,” Moon said in an interview with Fox News – Trump’s favored television channel, and a key rival to CNN.
Some experts opined that Kim may have been evacuated from the capital due to the novel coronavirus and stated that it was too much to speculate that Kim could have heart problems simply because he was obese and had a family history of similar issues.
Also, some research institutes and media outlets noted that Kim’s personal train was in the east coast seaside resort of Wonsan – a favored location of Kim for years, where he has been overseeing development.
Still, the rumor mill was spinning.
“More responsible media express North Korea in terms that they don’t know what is going on,” said Michael Breen, an ex-reporter and one of the few Westerners ever to meet the late Kim Il Sung. “But the more excitable media runs with confident sources that don’t know what they are talking about and people have to follow that need.”
Despite the red faces in global media following Kim’s reappearance, misreporting of North Korea may very well repeat itself.
“I think it will happen again, it is where the nature of media meets the nature of North Korea, and North Korea is very mysterious and does not feel the need to explain what it is doing,” said Breen, who is also the author of The New Koreans. “At one point the world did not care what North Korea was doing, but now, as it is a nuclear state, it does.”
Firstly, North Korea – a nuclear-armed dictatorship and potential casus belli at the heart of one of the world’s most prosperous economic regions, Northeast Asia – is of interest to both policy makers and globally and strategically minded news consumers.
Moreover, the country’s ruling Kims, their governing practices and even their idiosyncratic personal appearance, are a source of considerable curiosity. And with North Korea being one of the most isolated states on earth, there is natural human curiosity to know more.
All this makes a small country of virtually zero economic or cultural significance to the wider world, and one which has a tiny amount of intercourse with the wider world, a frequent front-page story in outlets ranging from high-brow global affairs magazines to tabloid gossip sheets.
Secondly, the country is notoriously opaque. Despite being a member of various international organizations it disseminates virtually zero data. Its various arms of government do not have PR departments which respond to media enquiries.
This makes information extremely hard to come by. State media, for example, was silence throughout Kim’s still-unexplained, three-week long absence from public duties.
While China’s Xinhua and Russia’s Tass staff bureaus in Pyongyang, no Western reporters are based, full-time, in North Korea. A former Tass reporter who spent years in the country and spoke the language told Asia Times how extraordinarily difficult it was to source stories inside the country.
And indeed, a number of recent reports about Kim – that a medical team had been sent to monitor him; and that he was in a vegetative state – in fact, originated from Chinese, not Western or South Korean, sources.
Two Western agencies – US-based AP and France-based AFP – maintain bureaus in Pyongyang, but their offices are staffed by local reporters. Senior Western journalists infrequently fly in to oversee the bureaus and report.
But Western reporters’ activities on the ground are limited. Official interviews are hardly ever granted, and visiting reporters are not allowed to report independently – indeed, their itineraries are often confined to tourist schedules, overseen by state minders. Public contact is possible, but can be forbidden, depending upon the political situation and the preferences of individual minders.
In South Korea, media coverage of the North often depends upon political orientation.
“Conservatives tend to overstate North Korean issues, and progressives tend to respond too passively to them,” said Jo Dong-joon, a professor of political science and international relations at Seoul National University.
He told Asia Times that some media outlets have been overly speculative over Kim’s health – but added that Seoul’s theoretical stance on the issue, encouraged media speculation.
While multiple countries maintain embassies inside North Korea, their access to information – such as about the Kims’ health – is also limited.
Pyongyangologists scan North Korean news: State media is famous for “burying the lede” – ie not reporting key data prominently. Open-source intelligence, such as commercial satellite footage, is a trustworthy, but is limited in what it can convey.
Organizations such as South Korea-based Daily NK and Japan-based Rimjin Gang, source information from on the ground via smuggled Chinese cell phones. However, some are suspicious of Daily NK, which receives funding from right-wing US organizations.
As many sources are defectors or retired military, diplomatic or intelligence officials who don’t want to compromise their contacts, they often speak anonymously, adding a further veil of opacity.
And named experts – ie members of the community of North Korea watchers, largely clustered in Seoul, but also in Washington DC, and at universities around the world – often offer differing views.
As a result of this confusion, there are few sources of clear and verifiable information.
Demand vs supply
North Korea is often top-tier news, so reporting only matters confirmed by official sources in North Korea is not feasible: official sources are often late, or simply don’t comment on issues that interest the wider world. Much news, therefore, relies upon incomplete information, and related interpretation.
Given the public demand for news outstripping the minimal supply of information, media often gets it wrong – yet is sometimes, ahead of the curve.
For example, news about Kim Jong Un being chosen as likely successor to his father circulated in South Korean media before it did in North Korean media.
And false reports can even presage actual events.
On September 17, 2004, Yonhap, South Korea’s partly-state funded news agency, reported a massive explosion, related seismic activity and a “mushroom-shaped cloud” near an underground military base in northeastern North Korea. That sparked a global diplomatic uproar amid fears that North Korea had detonated a nuclear device.
North Korea responded that it was carrying out conventional explosive detonations as part of a dam-building project, and with no radioactive indicators becoming apparent, the scare subsided.
Less than two years later, on October 4, 2016, North Korea detonated its first nuclear device in the northeast.