Why North Korea may not have just developed a cruise missile

North Korean media's track record seemingly ignored in 38 North analysis
June 17th, 2014

Has North Korea just entered “the cruise missile business“? Reading Jeffrey Lewis at 38 North on Tuesday, you might be persuaded to think so.

Citing a few frames of low-resolution footage injected into a 49 minute film broadcast about DPRK military capabilities, Lewis “confirms a surprising fact” – that the missile seen in a recent North Korean video is a copy of the modern, Russian-made KH-35.

Asking “Where did North Korea get the Kh-35,” Lewis speculates that Russia would be “the most likely candidate,” suggesting the “implication of new North Korean capabilities” means Washington now needs to “work more energetically to engage the North Koreans”.

Lewis goes from first-class detective work in identifying the cruise missile – no easy feat – to pro-engagement policy recommendations for the White House, all based on under one second of video. But let’s not forget this is video broadcast by Korea Central TV (KCTV), an outlet well known for being part of a propaganda apparatus that is manipulative with facts, Photoshops material, and that even engages in historical revisionism.

That’s a big omission to make, especially when considering there is nothing concrete in the several frames of footage to indicate the cruise missile was filmed flying anywhere near North Korea!

Of course, it is possible the footage could very well be genuine, perhaps a tease of a rapidly evolving North Korean military capabilities in spite of ever-tighter sanctions. But then again, what would be the goal of parading this new capability for just under a second, right at the very end of a video on broader military capabilities that could be easily missed?

Regardless of the answer, I believe it is important to be skeptical about everything North Korea says. Especially when there is mounting suspicion North Korean propagandists know analysts and observers are watching – even from the satellites above.

But why is this important – and why do I want to draw attention to this now?

As someone who is contacted frequently by media to offer an opinion on whether the latest story about Kim Jong Un executing his former girlfriend is true, I am increasingly frustrated by the echo-chamber I observe on North Korea reporting every week.

When the Chosun Ilbo says an official was executed by mortar round, it’s safe to expect this to become headline news in pretty much every Asia section the very next day. And despite the absurdity, there’s always enough plausible deniability to publish these stories because Asia editors can always say, “the Chosun Ilbo said it!”

In a similar vein, when respected analysts like Jeffrey Lewis and specialist websites like 38 North make claims, mainstream media also listens – and usually for the right reasons.

But should stories about new North Korean cruise missiles be re-reported as a matter of fact when the primary source is in fact nothing but one second of unattributed footage broadcast on KCTV? Only, I believe, if proper context is provided.

Yet, within just a few hours of 38 North publishing the post, the BBC had re-reported the cruise missile story without any air of doubt, omitting to mention North Korea’s highly dubious propaganda track record. In “N Korea develops Russian cruise missile“, the BBC told readers about the risks Lewis said a North Korean cruise missile capability might pose to neighbouring nations, even adding additional analysis from Jonathan Marcus, a diplomatic correspondent.

The issue is, when the BBC spotlights a North Korea story, you can be sure of extensive re-reporting – as was the case when a story about Kim Jong Un haircuts went viral recently. And so the process began: VOA followed suit not long after, with “Report: N. Korea Has New ‘Potentially Destabilizing’ Cruise Missile“.

Regardless of whether these cruise missiles are real or not, there is a more serious issue at play. That is, when extensive re-reporting of North Korea stories occur, experts often get called in to give their two cents – and I would not be surprised to even find State Department spokespersons fielding questions on the topic later today.

Is all this good for policy-making? It seems some are letting KCTV decide.

The views expressed here are the authors alone.

Picture: KCTV


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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.