Editor’s note: This column was erroneously published last Friday before Toshimitsu Shigemura was given an opportunity to respond and was withdrawn once the mistake was discovered. A response to the allegations is now included at the end. The original column also stated that Shigemura is currently on the faculty of Waseda University, and has been amended to reflect that he is retired. We regret the errors.
The Japanese media, frankly speaking, has a rather bad reputation among North Korean scholars: much of the stuff, unfortunately, gets published without sufficient cross-checking and thus many of the most sensationalist and exaggerated stories about the DPRK originate from Japan. It is sad, since the country has a number of talented scholars of North Korea – like the historian Nobuo Shimotomai – and good journalists writing about the DPRK like Yomi Goji, who conducted multiple interviews from Kim Jong Nam in 2012.
It is, however, quite remarkable that many of these fake stories came from just one man. His name is Toshimitsu Shigemura (重村智計) and he is a former professor in Waseda University – one of the top universities in the country. As Shigemura’s personal page tells us, his research field is “North Korean studies.” Because of Waseda’s stature, so many journalists have assumed that a person who holds a position there, and whose university page says he is a specialist in North Korea, must be an expert and reliable source.
However, this time this is not the case. Shigemura is notorious for promoting the most ridiculous stories about North Korea, using his position as a university employee as a way to make them look credible. Here are a few examples.
STORY #1: KIM JONG IL DIED IN 2003 AND WAS REPLACED BY A DOUBLE
This was seemingly the first time Shigemura’s name caught the media’s attention. He came out with sensational news: apparently, Kim Jong Il is dead, and the DPRK is ruled by his double; i.e. it is not just a body double appearing once or twice publicly but an actor who has literally been in charge of North Korea ever since.
Unlike the real Kim Jong Il, the actor was given a state funeral and his mummified body enshrined next to that of Kim Il Sung
If we are to believe this, we should also assume that it was this body double who met South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in 2007, presided over the Third Conference of the WPK in 2010 and whose death in 2011 was announced on national television. Unlike the real Kim Jong Il, the actor was given a state funeral and his mummified body enshrined next to that of Kim Il Sung. To quote Emperor Nero: “What an artist dies.” This is probably the greatest political accomplishment of any actor in human history, dwarfing even that of Ronald Reagan – and only Shigemura noticed this political supergenius who successfully fooled the world for years.
STORY #2: KIM JONG UN IS IN A ‘VEGETATIVE STATE’
This statement was made in February 2010 and Shigemura said, in no uncertain terms, that “this is not a supposition, this is a confirmed fact”: according to him, Kim Jong Un was in a motorcycle accident on the night from August 15 or early morning hours of the 16th in 2008 and remained in a vegetative state ever since.
STORY #3: KIM JONG UN IS KIM IL SUNG’S SON, NOT GRANDSON
After listening to the previous story, one might wonder how Kim Jong Un rules that country and gives speeches, while remaining in a vegetative state.
Shigemura apparently has a fascinating explanation. It appeared in the South Korean journal North Korea in July 2011, and those who have access to Kyobo E-Book database can download it here.
Here is how it goes: the Kim Jong Un that was anointed successor in late 2000s and the Kim Jong Un who actually became a successor are, according to Shigemura, two different persons. The first Kim Jong Un, proclaimed successor in the late 2000s, remains in a vegetative state. The second Kim Jong Un, who actually became successor, is a different man: He is, in fact, Kim Il Sung’s son. This makes him a younger brother of Kim Jong Il, who, as the readers remember, Shigemura said died much earlier and was replaced by a double.
(In should be noticed that Shigemura gives the two Kims a different name in Korean. Both are transliterated to English as “Kim Jong Un,” however, in Korean the first Kim is spelled 김정운 and the second 김정은.)
What are the grounds for this revelation? Well, Shigemura says that Kim Jong Un, who appeared in North Korean media looks like Kim Il Sung, but in his pictures which were published early by the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun he does not. Also, to Shigemura Kim Jong Un looks older than he should be. Finally, the rise of Jang Song Thaek and Kim Kyong Hui also point at this (this was actually written before Jang was purged and executed and Kim Kyong Hui completely disappeared).
It seems that, unlike other sensations from Shigemura, this story was considered to be too insane and did not generate much media.
HOW WAS IT ALLOWED?
First of all, North Korea is a closed and isolated country. Information about the DPRK is scarce – and the responsibility of those who provide us with such information is greater.
However, most media, with the rare exception of those focused directly on North Korea, tend to have a short memory about the DPRK. Kim Jong Nam is going to be Kim Jong Il’s successor, they say. However, in a few months, the same media can say that it is actually Kim Jong Chol. A certain member of a DPRK political elite is a reform-minded man, they say. In a few months, they may publish a report saying that he is a hardliner and a conservative.
People with credentials … are trusted over and over again even if what they say makes zero sense
Such a pattern means that it is very hard to get a bad reputation, not just for honest prognosis that turned out to be wrong, but even for those that are obviously false to begin with. People with credentials – and a Waseda University professor is a good one – are trusted over and over again even if what they say makes zero sense.
Also, North Korea has the reputation of an unpredictable and bizarre country and thus all the news about it is given a much greater benefit of the doubt. In other words, a blatant lie about the North is much more likely to be trusted than a blatant lie about most other countries.
SOMETHING HAS TO BE DONE
The “sensations” mentioned above are, of course, not all of Shigemura’s public statements. I did not include any of his claims which may be classified as “doubtful” or “questionable,” only those which are clearly and patently false.
The moral of the story is simple: A scholar is supposed to provide their audience with proven facts and credible analysis and Shigemura does the opposite. The only people who benefit from such an approach are Kim family sympathizers: It is quite common for such individuals to find one or two ridiculous pieces of news about the DPRK and, based on this, start to immediately dismiss all independent information about North Korea as fabrications.
A journalist caught reporting false information a number of times would probably be fired. What about a professor?
Assuming that Shigemura is in a healthy mental state, these could not possibly be a series of coincidences or honest mistakes. We can speculate about his motives – was he just hungry for attention? – but the fact is that Shigemura supplied the press with false information, abusing his position as a professor and casting a shadow over the reputation of the whole academic community.
This logically brings us to the question of scholars’ responsibility for their statements. A journalist caught reporting false information a number of times would probably be fired. What about a professor? One may say that a scholar’s responsibility is even higher: People in general trust academia and it is a duty of a scholar not to abuse such trust.
Shigemura, who is now 70, has recently retired from teaching. However, Waseda University’s site still credits him as a professor, which undoubtedly harms the reputation of this respected institution, North Korean studies in Japan and academics in general.
There have been precedents of tenure contracts being severed for cases of plagiarism and in that case not only the plagiarizer had been expelled from academic community, but his/her former university disassociated itself from the offender. Should the Waseda University’ authorities choose to act in a similar way, it would certainly have a positive effect on their reputation and such an action would be worthy of respect.
NK News contacted Toshimitsu Shigemura by phone and asked him for a response to the allegations in this column. He said that his past statements, including that Kim Jong Il died and was replaced by a body double and that Kim Il Sung is Kim Jong Un’s father, are not his opinions but that he was merely reporting prominent rumors without drawing conclusions himself. He further said that Fyodor Tertitskiy’s allegations indicate that he has not actually read Shigemura’s books.
To which Tertitskiy responded:
Mr. Shigemura’s statement is correct: Indeed, I did not read his books (they are in Japanese, by the way). But do I talk about his books in the article? No, I do not. Meanwhile, his publications referenced in this article were signed by him, and none of them had a remark “everything I said here is a lie, if you want the truth instead, read my Japanese books.”
I can draw an analogy: Imagine a Portuguese person who holds a position of a professor in one of the top universities in Lisbon and specializes in American studies. Now imagine said person claiming that in 2005 President Bush died and was quietly replaced by a body double and that Jeb Bush who unsuccessfully ran for the latest Republican primaries is not the Jeb Bush, who was a governor of Florida – no Jeb Bush the governor actually lies in a vegetative state, whilst Jeb Bush the aspiring nominee is a different person – he, in fact, is George W. Bush’s son, not a brother like they claim. Finally, imagine that when this person is confronted by his critics, instead of offering some proof or showing remorse for supplying the public with false information, he/she would simply say: “But you have not read my books in Portuguese, how can you criticize me?”
I am asking you – would such a person be considered a specialist any longer?
Main image: Waseda University, Wikimedia Commons
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Featured Image: Waseda University South Gate Street Store Assosiation by Dick Thomas Johnson on 2012-06-17 06:39:43