EXCLUSIVE! How Reuters Sources Keep Getting It Wrong on North Korea

September 26th, 2012

Over the past year or so, Reuters have released several “exclusive” stories that have set the internet on light when it comes to North Korea reporting.  However, it appears their main source on North Korea frequently appears to get things wrong.

After publication, these stories have led to extensive re-reporting and analysis across the internet, with the most recent being the incorrect forecast that economic reforms would have been announced at yesterday’s Supreme People’s Assembly.

All seemingly come from the same source, which Reuters consistently describes as having “predicted events in the past, including North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 days before it was conducted as well as the ascension of Jang [Song Thaek].” However, it is difficult to judge where the sources credibility comes from when considering these two qualifiers.

As we know, North Kora became the first ever state to warn the international community of a nuclear test when it released a statement warning of its first test six days before it happened, on October 3 2006. Quite where the exclusivity of the Reuters source predicting it “days” before is therefore hard to see – nor is there any record of it available on a through search of Google news archives in 2006.

As for the source’s “successful” prediction of the “ascendency” of Jang Song Thaek,  a close look at the original report in which it was articulated shows there was a lot more ambiguity than Reuters imply. This is because in that article their source said that Kim Jong-un’s leadership would be based on “collective rule” and did not actually remark on the individual rise of Jang Song Thaek.  And while the source’s collective rule theory did include support from Jang, it also included support from Ri Yong Ho – and we all know what happened to him.

The recurring problem with the Reuters North Korea “exclusives” is that they lead to extensive re-reporting by major outlets, analyst responses, and on occasion, even comment by government officials and agencies.  None of this is helpful if the source is consistently getting things wrong.  Let’s take a quick look at the sources other recent claims:

  • WRONG: Exclusive: North Korea plans agriculture reforms (September 24) – As far as we know from KCNA reports of the event, the Reuters source incorrectly predicted the September 25 meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly would likely discuss “economic adjustment” and agricultural reforms.
  • WRONG: Exclusive: North Korea’s Kim Jong-un asked for China trip (August 24) – While the headline is probably true, unless something major happens within the next few days, the source will have been incorrect about predicting that Kim Jong-un would visit China on a full state visit by the end of September.
  • DON’T KNOW: Exclusive – Kim plans economic changes in North Korea after purge: source (July 21) – The source said that the cabinet had created a special bureau to take control of the economy from the military, and that Kim Jong-un had personally set up a “economic reform group”.  As of now there are still no indicators to prove this to be true.
  • WRONG: Exclusive: North Korea’s nuclear test ready “soon” (April 24) – In this exclusive, the source “confirmed” a “planned test”.  This was one of the principal stories to contribute and shape intense media speculation that week about an imminent third nuclear test.

From the above it would appear that only the rumor about the formation of an economic reform group might potentially be true – but this is also something North Korea would unlikely ever admit to publicly. As such, one has to ask whether people should put so much faith in this source in future.

As any responsible news agency would do, Reuters have been careful to couch all of their North Korea exclusives with warnings about the unverifiable nature of their source’s comments.  As such, this post is not intended as an attack on Reuters – a responsible and professional news agency.  However, the 21st century news machine often regurgitates these stories in much shorter form, often changing facts and headlines on the go.  Through this process, the North Korea rumor mill is set alight with incorrect predictions that soon become regarded as concrete.  Just consider the most recent example:

Following the Reuters exclusive that the Supreme People’s Assembly would discuss economic and agricultural reform, Google News reported a staggering 594 stories picking up the key words “reuters, north korea, reform” in the following three days.  The headlines included titles such as:

  • North Korea ‘to introduce farming reform’ (BBC)
  • North Korea ‘to allow farmers to keep half their produce’ (Telegraph)
  • Major Agriculture Reforms Coming To North Korea (Business Insider)

All of this contributed (from NK News also) to misunderstanding about the lack of reform announced at yesterday’s North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly meeting. And when the stories are more sensational, such as Reuter’s prediction of a third nuclear test back in April, the result helps feed a media frenzy that can even lead to cast- iron predictions of a nuclear test “within a week”.  The result is more blogs, op-eds, and analytical pieces which seek to make sense of predicted North Korean behavior based on what appears to be nothing more than rumor-mongering.

Of course, Reuters isn’t the only outlet to publish tip-offs from North Korean “sources” as this type of reporting seems to go with the territory.  But it is important to pay attention to previous track records when interpreting the contributions of sources like the one Reuters keeps using.

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.