Argument

How to Tell Whether Crazy North Korean Stories Are True

With Kim Jong Un missing, careful readings are more important than ever.

An impersonator of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un poses in front of a police cordon during a protest at the International Finance Center shopping mall in Hong Kong on April 28.
An impersonator of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un poses in front of a police cordon during a protest at the International Finance Center shopping mall in Hong Kong on April 28. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

It has been a week since rumors of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s death surfaced, and Americans still don’t know if he is dead or alive. Clearly, the Western media is in the dark about the intricacies of North Korea. But are North Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean media—which are often quoted as if they were monolithic or infallible—any better?

North Korea is a black box for outside observers, and the prospect of its internal instability is a global health, nuclear security, and humanitarian nightmare—especially right now. Add to that the constant fascination with the grand guignol drama of the Kim family, and it’s no surprise that last week’s Daily NK and CNN articles about Kim Jong Un’s health have garnered global attention.

But not all news is equal. At this point, North Korea’s state-sponsored media, together with Chinese, Japanese, and American media, are fueling a frenzy that South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul described as an “infodemic.” While the quantity of stories about Kim’s whereabouts may be high, their quality is low, and learning how to critically analyze them is vital for anyone trying to understand what’s happening.

For credible insights into North Korean affairs, analysts of North Korea generally turn to the state-run Korean Central News Agency or Korean Central Television. Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, is another source of state-sponsored news and propaganda about life inside North Korea.

All North Korean media serve the singular purpose of advancing the North Korean government’s interests or factions that exist within it. Their language is both florid and repetitive, as with any state media outlet in an authoritarian regime.

Therefore, it is important to read between the lines in order to differentiate facts from embellishments. One should not accept claims outright without independent fact-checking or to take wild threats of retaliation and death at face value. Most North Korea watchers are well aware of this and use caveats when citing North Korean sources. What is not said—for instance, the absence of any pictures of Kim on the front pages in recent weeks—can be significant, but it can also be tempting to overanalyze and read false inferences into such sources.

In recent years, North Korea has begun using YouTube to promote official news as well as first-person stories to narrate its internal affairs. North Korea Today features videos on a wide range of topics, from North Korean defense capabilities to an accomplished accordion player, shining light into what the North Korean government deems as positive coverage. The North Korea Today channel has nearly 40,000 subscribers, and new content appears to be uploaded regularly. Other YouTube channels such as Echo DPRK have fewer subscribers but look slicker, perhaps in an effort to attract a younger crowd. For example, a video titled “What’s up Pyongyang? Coivd19 situation in DPRK,” uploaded on April 12, features an English-speaking woman in a supermarket interviewing customers about the availability of food despite the pandemic. These videos help supplement traditional news sources but are subject to the same caveats.

Interpreting Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean news about North Korea is far trickier. All have their own vested interests in determining what to report and when. But even regional observers who sometimes have a much better grasp of North Korea than American observers have a limited grasp of their reclusive neighbor.

Like the North Korean state media, Chinese news outlets are controlled by the state, sometimes directly run by it, and subject to manipulation, omission, and censorship. Take the Global Times, a daily newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper with a bent toward sensational and nationalistic stories. Its reporting of an April 27 press conference by Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang recorded a question from a South Korean reporter about the recent Chinese medical team that was sent to North Korea to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But according to the official transcript of the press conference, the South Korean reporter had raised both COVID-19 and Kim’s condition as potential reasons for the Chinese medical team’s visit.

This could be an example of the Chinese media leaving out sensitive or controversial elements of a news story. A sudden leadership transition in North Korea has direct implications for China’s border security, public health, and national security, so China has an incentive to censor destabilizing news about its impoverished neighbor.

Not all Japanese news reporting about North Korea can be taken at face value either. North Korean and Chinese reporting tend to be nationalistic and limit dissenting views, but Japanese newspapers and magazines can play to a scandal-hungry audience as much as any U.S. tabloid. U.S. media can end up treating Japanese entertainment magazines like the New York Times rather than TMZ. For example, U.S. news claiming that Kim may be in a “vegetative state” after undergoing a cardiac stent surgery cited an article by Shukan Gendai, a weekly magazine published by Kodansha. The magazine is not known for breaking news coverage of foreign affairs. (Its homepage currently advertises nude photos of an actress.) The author who claimed that Kim was in a vegetative state, Daisuke Kondo, also wrote in 2017 that the North Korean leader had been replaced with an impersonator. In both articles, Kondo cites anonymous sources.

Japanese stories about North Korea tend to also reflect Japanese nationalism and anti-Korean ethnic bias. According to research by Kim Seokwon, news about North Korea is often delivered by so-called experts or relevant people in Japan who may be suspicious about North Korea and hype its threat, much like in U.S. media. Unsolved bilateral issues, such as Japanese abductees in North Korea and North Korean missile tests, already generate negative feelings about North Korea by the Japanese public. When North Korean provocation isn’t grabbing headlines, it becomes an easy target for gossip.

There is plenty of confusion about Kim’s health in South Korea as well, despite statements by top officials that he seems to be doing fine. Despite familiarity with the Korean language and, to a certain extent, North Korean culture, South Korean news outlets also get North Korea wrong from time to time and can be as blind about North Korea as the West.

For example, in November 1986, South Korea’s largest newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, reported that North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, had been shot and killed. Last month, as part of the newspaper’s 100th anniversary celebration, Chosun Ilbo’s editors issued an apology for past erroneous reporting, including that of Kim’s death, citing negligence in fact-checking and poor judgment by its reporters. Even on a linguistic basis, the drift between the Korean language in the North and in the South, from the importation of Russian words instead of English ones to the political shibboleths around the regime, can confuse South Koreans.

Since rumors about Kim Jong Un’s health surfaced, many reporters have looked to North Korean defectors for their assessment. Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who was elected to South Korea’s National Assembly this month, added credibility to the ongoing rumors by saying, “From what I hear, it is true that Kim Jong Un has some health issues. His heart has been in a bad condition due to cardiovascular problems.”

Similarly, the former senior North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho, who was also elected to South Korea’s National Assembly this month, did not rule out the possibility that Kim may be ill: “For days now, South Korean newspapers and world media have been reporting that something is wrong with Kim’s health. … Something strange is going on.” But the world of defectors can be gossipy, paranoid, and full of rumor. What they hear from the North often goes through layers of interlocutors before reaching them, leading to distorted stories and overly narrative-driven tales.

So for North Korea watchers, a healthy dose of skepticism, critical thinking, and independent assessment is essential for navigating its news. Avoiding single-sourced or narratively exciting tales also helps discern facts from rumors.

To be fair, it is difficult to foresee unplanned leadership changes, even from the inside. Ten months before the Berlin Wall fell, East German leader Erich Honecker predicted that the wall would stand 100 more years. Sudden change is even harder to predict from the outside. For instance, no one expected the Arab Spring to be a regional phenomenon until it spread beyond Tunisia. Even when it did, Western countries failed to understand it; former French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali help in quelling the protest movement. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter famously called Iran “an island of stability” a year before the country was swept by a revolution whose repercussions the United States still is dealing with.

Unfortunately, the debate about North Korea in Washington is highly politicized. Democrats risk isolation if they support President Donald Trump’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea. Republicans—who would have thrown a fit if former President Barack Obama had reached out to Pyongyang as he did with Tehran—are carefully staying out of Trump’s way. Meanwhile, the North Korean government is probably waiting for the U.S. presidential election results in November before making any serious overtures.

Yet resolving bilateral tensions demands a nonideological, flexible approach. At a time when China is reluctant to open its borders with North Korea due to pandemic concerns, there may be an opening for closer U.S.-North Korea diplomacy. But that depends on whether the two countries can cut through the noise and quietly untangle their differences.

Jessica J. Lee is a senior research fellow on East Asia at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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