Claims a North Korean biochemical weapons expert carrying gigabytes of “information on human experiments” defected to Finland in June were fabricated, a South Korean journalist has admitted.
Lee Bong-suk, the Yonhap News Agency reporter who initially broke the story, told respected Finnish daily the Helsingin Sanomat that his article was based on false information, provided to him by an unspecified North Korea-focused human rights organization.
“Lee has now reported that according to the South Korean National Intelligence Service, the defection did not take a place,” the Helsingin Sanomat said, which previously tried to confirm the story with Finnish authorities after the Yonhap article emerged.
Lee previously wrote that the biochemicals expert, who was alleged to be 47 years old and surnamed Lee, was preparing to speak to the European Parliament about the human experiments he had documented evidence on.
When Yonhap’s story emerged it consequently triggered a wave of re-reporting and discussion among North Korea watchers. That, in turn, led to increased suspicions among Finnish foreign ministry, immigration and even South Korean embassy officials, according to the Helsingin Sanomat.
And it was only after the Helsinki-based newspaper attempted to double-check the story that the Yonhap journalist admitted – on Wednesday – that it was based on false information.
IMPACT ON HUMAN RIGHTS
Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia Deputy Project Director with the International Crisis Group in Seoul, said the controversy was “part of an agenda to discredit and undermine the Kim regime.”
“There have been several cases when government officials and NGO activists have fabricated stories about the DPRK,” he said. “The DPRK’s human rights record is atrocious, so Pyongyang is an easy target for such stories,” adding that “if the allegations were true, the story would be extraordinary.”
And if a human rights NGO could “demonstrate they had obtained such info and had assisted such a defection,” it could result in increased prominence and additional financial support, Pinkston said.
“However, fabricating stories undermines the work of those trying to improve human rights and deal with the DPRK in other policy areas,” he said, adding that the “truth is more than sufficient.”
Executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea Greg Scarlatoiu, who was skeptical about the story when they emerged in June, said “if media organizations persist in publishing insufficiently sourced stories, they will lose their readership.”
But he warned that the issue should not be read as evidence of general problems with wider defector testimony.
“I would also strongly caution against misusing this particular example to judge or undermine the credibility of accounts provided by actual North Korean escapees, in particular the 320 interviewed by the UN Commission of Inquiry, or those interviewed by HRNK and other reliable human rights research organizations,” he said Thursday.
Michael Glendinning, of London’s European Alliance on Human Rights in North Korea, echoed Scarlatoiu’s comments on the reliability of defector testimony.
“If we are to talk more broadly about the testimonies of refugees and asylum seekers – of which there are roughly 30,000 individual cases – then I would strongly argue that false or misleading stories are the exception, rather than the norm,” he said.
“We rarely read stories in the global press on the accuracy of testimony, but we do see many stories that analyze untruths and exaggerations,” he added. “Relative to truthful testimonies, this press coverage is, of course, blown out of proportion.”
One Finnish academic with experience in North Korea told NK News the affair was illustrative of wider problems with media reporting on the DPRK, or as he described, a “pattern of media bingo.”
“(An) unconfirmed story comes up, journalists who are not familiar with the topic go ballistic about it, and it hits the front page,” Dr. Heikkilä, of Helsinki’s Aalto University, said on Thursday.
“This time it was Finland’s turn – we love if we are mentioned abroad – and (journalists) took the bite from South Korea, or it was simply a translation mistake at some point,” he said.
Yonhap initially attributed the news to a single anonymous source, without revealing background on how the source may have acquired the information.
South Korean news outlets often rely on single sources for claims, seldom making effort to verify the information before publication, an issue that results in numerous inaccurate stories about North Korea emerging each year.
Yonhap is yet to issue a correction.
Picture: Wikimedia Commons
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