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View more articles by Andray Abrahamian
Andray Abrahamian is the 2018-19 Koret Fellow at Stanford University
North Korea is an information hard-target, to be sure. Something about its media-resistant nature, along with several other factors, gives rise to all manner of rumors, some mundane, some bizarre, some of significance. From unicorns to missiles, these rumors often illustrate as much about how we think about the DPRK as they do about the country itself. Here are our top ten.
Let’s start this list with something that turns out to be true, as it is illustrative of how actual strange events have given license to print and believe all rumors because, hey, it’s North Korea so anything is possible
In 1986, when South Korean Director Shin San-ok and Actress Choi Un-hui emerged after eight years in North Korea, their story of kidnapped-and-forced-to-make-films sounded too James-Bond-Villainous to be possible. And yet it appears to all be true. They even recorded conversations with Kim Jong Il to corroborate their story.
Fresh off the presses, this one is included mostly because it has unicorns in it. Time magazine last week ran a story titled: “Unicorns’ Existence Proven, Says North Korea”. This was of course picked up on by Twitterians and other journalists because it is obviously ridiculous.
The actual KCNA article in English is poorly written, but only the least generous interpretation possible would say it claimed that unicorns existed. That article states that the writing on the lair dated from 1000 years after legend. The original Korean article more obviously states that these were fantastical creatures that were part of legend. But what is more likely? A poorly translated, contextless article? Or that North Korea is claiming unicorns were historical fact?
Proper rebuttal here.
Major international sporting events are a good opportunity for us to see North Koreans as teams cannot avoid the harsh glare of the international media, unlike at smaller events. Inevitably, articles turn to the idea that if the athletes lose, they will be banished to the gulag. This seems to be a popular claim because it is easy to make and fits in with how we imagine the arbitrariness of the prison system to be.
There has never been any good evidence of the threat of labor camps for losers and it makes little sense – heaping that kind of pressure on athletes is not a recipe for success. It conflates an actual act of control with a mostly imagined one. It’s true that North Koreans abroad have to be very careful with how they conduct themselves. If they act recklessly, they can jeopardize their position in society. This is not the same as losing a match, though.
This one is significant because it represents the zeitgeist of early-2000s America, when fear was in the air and vulnerabilities uncertain. Not long after North Korea’s February 24th, 2003 missile test, the Korea Times is widely cited as having reported that the warhead of a missile had been found in Alaska. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency quickly denied the story, but “the report still bounces around the Internet, a favorite of conservative blogs and conspiratorially-inclined sites”. As Barbara Demick puts it, its “staying power illustrates the extent of the confusion about the North Korean weapons program”.
In April 2004, one of the biggest train disasters of all time took place near Ryongchon, about 20 kilometers from the Chinese border. For a country with crumbling infrastructure, this would perhaps not normally be news beyond the humanitarian tragedy. However, Kim Jong Il had just returned from a visit to China and is thought to have passed through the area some hours earlier.
This led to speculation that it was an assassination attempt, especially after the fledgling cell phone network was terminated in the months afterwards.
South Korean authorities didn’t like the rumors and stated it was an accident. Several years on, however, the rumors persist. A Wikileaks release shows Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun stating that Kim Jong-il himself thought it was an assassination attempt. There is even speculation that Mossad was involved, seeking to disrupt DPRK-Syrian cooperation on weapons development. We’ll likely never know what happened.
The DPRK’s first family got the Western-style celebrity treatment to an unprecedented degree this year, being turned into something of an Asian William and Kate. Did Kim Jong Un get his nose done? Who’s that girl with him? Is it his lady friend? Does she have a “baby-bump”? Is that handbag a Chanel?
And so the tabloidization of the world continues…
This story illustrates the inflation of information in the rumor chain. In March of this year, South Korean newspaper the Choson Ilbo (infamous in its tenacity for starting North Korea-related rumours) quoted “a South Korean government source “ as saying that Kim Chol, a top general, “was put in front of a firing squad for being drunk during the mourning period, he was executed using a mortar round in line with Kim’s orders to leave ‘no trace of him behind, down to his hair.’”
Initially this made little splash in the Western press, but in October a South Korean lawmaker, Representative Yoon Sang-hyun, testified in front of Seoul’s National Assembly concerning intelligence data on high level purges he had received. In his statement, he mentioned that Kim Chol had been executed “by firing squad”. The Chosun Ilbo duly ran the story with the title “N.Korean Vice Defense Chief Executed by Firing Squad”.
This news ran the same day in various English-language outlets, but universally with the story of mortar-round executions. The New York Daily News, for example, simply headlined it “Kim Jong-un executes official with mortar round”. British tabloid the Daily Mail went with the more sensational “North Korean official is executed by MORTAR SHELL for drinking during 100-day mourning period for late ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il”, subtitling it “During the 100-day mourning period North Koreans were forced to abstain from pleasurable activities – including drinking”.
Is it possible that Kim Chol was executed in such an absurdly violent way? Yes. Is it possible that North Koreans abstained from drinking for 100 days nationwide? No. Either way, it demonstrates how a single anonymous source can generate a story in the South Korean press, which then gets escalated into all-caps certainties for fine news outlets such as the Daily Mail.
At the World Cup in 2010, a story about North Korea’s usage of invisible cell-phone technology was circulated. As ABC News put it, “North Korean manager Kim Jong Hun reportedly gets coaching advice directly from the country’s diminutive dictator via an invisible cell phone. According to ESPN.com the coach has claimed he gets ‘regular tactical advice during matches’ from Jong Il “using mobile phones that are not visible to the naked eye.” This statement is attributed to coach Kim Jong Hun.
Time magazine also picked up on the story in 2010, but attributed ESPN’s interview to “Kim Jong Su, the general secretary of the North Korean FA”. The story was also picked up by South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo, who ran it under the rather more inflammatory headline “Kim Jong-il Blamed for N.Korea’s Foolish World Cup Tactics”.
Sadly, as of 2012, the original interview is no longer available on ESPN.com and communication with ESPN employees to try to find the original article or author met with failure during the course of research. It is therefore unverifiable, but is preserved online as a testament to North Korea’s fundamentally bizarre nature.
The uneasy high-school prom dance between social media and traditional media took a turn for the awkward when this rumor blew up in February 2012. Media around the world scrambled to find out what was going on as Weibo and then Twitter lit up with the rumor. All it takes is a few cars parked outside the DPRK embassy in Beijing for a Weibo user to jump to conclusions, others follow and then news mayhem ensures.
This is the granddaddy of DPRK rumors. It’s been knocking around for years, but got a big boost after the Secretary’s death last December. Many took to twitter to discuss the issue after his death, joking about his legacy and the effect his death would have on the world’s golf-rankings.
However, not a single source has ever been offered beyond “North Korean state media” by any of the articles making this claim: rather, they cite each other. Furthermore, informal surveys of North Koreans themselves revealed that no one in Pyongyang was aware of this legendary feat, unless told it by a tourist. It is the ultimate look-at-how-crazy-they-are rumor.