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View more articles by Justin Rohrlich
Justin Rohrlich is an Emmy Award winning journalist with a keen interest in North Korean affairs
Last August, Kim Jong Un’s ex-girlfriend, singer Hyon Song Wol, was arrested for violating North Korea’s pornography laws. Three days later, Hyon and 11 other performers rounded up with her, were machine-gunned to death in front of their families. Or, maybe they weren’t.
In December, Kim Jong Un had his uncle Jang Song Thaek handcuffed and marched out of a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea. He and five aides were later stripped naked and eaten alive by 120 dogs that had been starved for three days. Or not.
Was Kim Jong Un “very drunk” when he ordered the execution of two of his uncle’s former aides last fall? It was reported as fact in South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo, citing the Japanese Yomiuri Shimbun, which relied on nothing more than “a source.” Has Kim Jong Un’s younger sister really been put “in charge of the regime’s coffers since the execution of his uncle? The Chosun Ilbo quotes a group of North Korean activists in South Korea who say they heard as much from “a North Korean source.” Without any way to confirm much of what we hear about the daily machinations going on within North Korea’s borders, the short answer is: who knows?
Information is arguably the most powerful weapon in any nation’s arsenal. And North and South Korea are, technically, still at war. Author and Korea historian Bruce Cumings says the two Koreas are testimony to the fact that “in war–or suspended war–truth is the first casualty.”
“The problem is that the North’s lies are easily the equal of whatever balderdash the South wants to parlay to the world’s journalists,” Cumings, Swift Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Chicago, tells NK News.
“We see this today in the regime’s ridiculous charges against Uncle Jang Song Thaek–a staunch Kim loyalist since at least 1972 when he married Kim Il Sung’s daughter. The indictment that led to his execution was simultaneously childish in its charges against him, insulting to the intelligence of a ten-year-old, and chilling in its murderous intent. Then some weeks later (i.e. now), comes the story that Kim Jong Un had the unfortunate Mr. Jang fed to 120 ravenous dogs–and the world press bats this story around: probably not true, but then again, might be….” Cumings explains.
As Chris Green wrote on Sino-NK back in 2012, “It is important to note that what we (with ‘we’ meaning any group trying to get news out of North Korea) are working with is, in truth, a pretty fragile piece of newsgathering architecture.”
Green, the Manager of International Affairs at the Daily NK, explained that on the North Korean side, policymakers “actively operate on the premise that a well-timed declaration in the market in Hyesan, Shinuiju or Namyang can arrive on the pages” of South Korea’s major newspapers. In short order, rumor becomes fact. “Before you know it,” said Green, “it is a feature article in the New York Times and informing government policy inside the Beltway.”
And, while their techniques may be slightly less ham-handed than those used by North Korean propagandists, Cumings says circulating dubious information is a time-honored technique for the South Koreas, as well.
“I would say that leaking falsely-crafted intelligence on the North Korean leadership to journalists has been standard operating procedure for the ROK embassies around the world and the ROK intelligence services, for as long as North Korea has existed,” he says.
Author, consultant, and former foreign correspondent Michael Breen tells NK News that he is “quite familiar with dodgy information from my reporting days.”
“The problem comes from the fact that South Korean officials are accustomed to giving information to media without being identified or otherwise held accountable,” says Breen, who covered both Koreas for the Washington Times and the Guardian.
“The worst one I ever experienced was when a scholar connected to South Korean intelligence told me there had been a secret North-South summit in Panmunjom. I gave this to a colleague and he ran with it and got seriously embarrassed when other international media checked and reported that it was false. The story came out of one office of the South Korean intelligence agency that thought another office in the same agency was overstepping its territory. The professional journalistic problem that encourages such mistakes is that South Korean media let officials get away without being identified.”
Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Editor and Tokyo Bureau Chief for The Times (UK), says a colleague in London received a tip from South Korean intelligence a few years back that Kim Jong Il had been deposed in an internal coup. He asked Parry to look into it, who found others had also heard the same thing, from the same sources.
“All that demonstrated was that there was a concerted push through multiple outlets to get the story into print, not that it was true,” Lloyd Parry tells NK News.
The story, of course, was not true.
“I’m glad to say that I strongly resisted publishing anything,” he says.
Max Fisher of the Washington Post has been offered dubious “scoops,” as well. When a South Korean embassy official contacted Fisher last year with a trove of government documents he implied they were so sensitive, they could only be shared in person. When they met, the official passed Fisher a packet of several pages on Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju.
“It looked like something a high school student had put together,” Fisher tells NK News. “Each page had publicly available KCNA (Korean Central News Agency) photos of Ri, blurry insets zooming in on some particular piece of clothing or jewelry, and then a paragraph or two speculated on the brand and price. It was interlaced with this strange invective about how Ri claimed to be a woman of the people (does she?) but was actually living a very comfortable life.”
Fisher observed details regarding Ri’s childhood that seemed to contradict what he’d seen elsewhere. He pressed his contact for specifics, who quickly folded and admitted it was all just speculation.
“I told him I wasn’t sure I could do anything with this and he got very outraged on my behalf,” Fisher says.
“He said he would have some tough words with his colleagues in the NIS (National Intelligence Service) about trying to push something so shoddy–though he himself had been pushing it hard moments earlier,” Fisher says.
“He also did something he did in every meeting and email exchange, which was to push very very aggressively for us to form some kind of personal relationship; he wanted to trade vacation photos, go out drinking together, that sort of thing. I didn’t take him up on it.”
EVERYONE’S DOING IT
Make no mistake, North and South Korea don’t have a monopoly on planted news stories. In 2005, it was revealed that the Bush administration paid syndicated columnist and television host Armstrong Williams, a former aide to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, $241,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind law. He never disclosed the arrangement in his column or on the air.
That same year, the Pentagon was found to have paid to place articles favorable to American interests in Iraqi newspapers.”A free and independent press is critical to the functioning of a democracy, and I am concerned about any actions which may erode the independence of the Iraqi media,” Sen. John Warner (R-VA), the then-chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
Back in 1986, a “deception” plan by the Reagan administration planted false information in the media, intended to dupe Muammar Khadafy into believing he was about to be attacked by US forces. Although a spokesman insisted there was no intention to “deliberately mislead the press and American people,” President Reagan said he would like “Mr. Khadafy to go to bed every night wondering what we might do.”
1986 was also the year South Korea’s southern intelligence services “bamboozled the world press corps by claiming that Kim Jong Il had assassinated his own father, Kim Il Sung,” says Bruce Cumings. The story came undone a few days later, when Kim Il Sung showed up at the Pyongyang airport–alive–to greet the Mongolian president.
“Then the story died, as if it had never been reported–and no one seemed interested in inquiring as to where the story came from in the first place,” says Cumings.
An intense demand for information coupled with extremely low supply “creates perfect conditions for rumour,” admits Richard Lloyd Parry. “I don’t need to tell you that this is one of the biggest difficulties we face in reporting North Korea.”
A similar sentiment was expressed by Max Fisher on his blog recently, asking NK News director Chad O’Carroll if he wanted to “scold American outlets” for picking up a story like the gruesome Jang Song Thaek hungry dogs tale and passing it off as fact.
“What are editors meant to do?” he replied. “Ignore a story because it ‘feels’ wrong, but could end up later to be true? I don’t know.”
Main picture: Google