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View more articles by Damin Jung
Damin Jung was an NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked at the CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) Korea Chair.
News about North Korea is well known for being unreliable, either grossly distorted, factually incorrect, or needlessly sensationalized. In the never-ending race for traffic, journalists rely on the ‘impossible-to-verify’ nature of the subject to justify non-critical recycling of what should otherwise be highly suspicious material.
As a result, fake news related to high-interest subjects can spread like wildfire, oftentimes remaining online indefinitely – despite crystal clear evidence being presented to the contrary.
But while South Korea’s geographic position, shared language, and mutual interest in unification ought to make it a go-to country for credible news about North Korea, the reality is that some of the most egregious falsehoods originate from the pens of journalists in Seoul.
Take, for example, mass re-reporting of the Chosun Ilbo’s claim that Kim Jong Un had executed his former girlfriend by firing squad in 2013, a Yonhap news agency report that a North Korean biochemical expert fled to Finland in 2015, or the 2016 claim – based on Ministry of Unification material – that chief of North Korea’s military Ri Yong Gil had been executed in 2016 for corruption and other charges.
Despite coming from South Korea’s biggest newspaper, largest professional news agency, and sources in the only government ministry dedicated to following North Korea, it wasn’t long before all three stories were proven wrong: Kim Jong Un’s girlfriend quickly reappeared, no such defection to Finland ever happened, and Ri Yong Gil is still alive.
Sometimes, the scale of the claims is sufficient to create avalanches of news that last for days and days, being discussed by leading analysts and experts worldwide, with potential implications even for policy-makers.
Some of the most egregious falsehoods originate from the pens of journalists in Seoul
What is it, then, that causes South Korea – apparently against all odds – to be the source of so much false news about the North? As a country which should be a natural gatekeeper for high quality, in-depth, and nuanced reporting about the North, how do things go wrong so often for South Korean journalists working on the DPRK?
Extended NK News interviews with veteran journalists, former government officials, as well as academic specialist, showed on the one hand that overall reporting quality has improved significantly from the Cold War days, reaching notable heights during periods of sustained inter-Korean dialogue.
But on the other, an ongoing state of war, low South Korean sourcing standards, a general lack of North Korea expertise among local journalists, and a disinterest in cooperating with foreign media all contribute to a far-from optimum quality of reporting about the North.
IMPROVING STANDARDS, BUT…
With the collapse of the Cold War, North Korea journalism in South Korea has made striking progress, some North Korea specialist journalists say, especially following moments of rapprochement with Pyongyang.
“After the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement (1991) there were regular visitors who come and go between the two Koreas and the number of defectors strikingly increased,” says a veteran North Korea journalist who – like many of those who spoke to NK News for this report – requested anonymity in return for sharing their comments.
Lee Young-jong, a journalist covering unification issues at the right-leaning Joongang Ilbo agrees that the inter-Korean exchanges which started to take place at a governmental level at that time helped stimulate a diversification of sources for local journalists.
This improvement was fueled throughout the 1990s and 2000s, several journalists say, especially during the so-called “Sunshine” era, led by progressive administrations that pursued engagement towards the North.
“Things like Kim Dae-jung administration’s inter-Korean summit or Mt. Kumgang tourism contributed (to the improvement), even though those policies had some limitations,” Lee, the unification journalist, says.
The North Korea issue remains hard to separate from political or ideological frames of reference
South Korean journalists covering North Korea have now gained “far more information and more ways to verify and look at things than before,” Seo Soo-min, an Assistant Professor of Temple University and a former correspondent for the Hankyoreh and Korea Times, also says.
Notably, outlets like the Seoul-based Daily NK are able to communicate with sources deep inside North Korea to get news, data, and media from informants throughout the country.
And it’s the huge increase in availability of information about the so-called “enemy country” in recent years, Seo says, that is also leading to changes in the average South Korean’s views of North Korea.
South Koreans no longer picture a horned goblin with a red face when they think of North Korea, and now see, through what are still limited and filtered reports, a more accurate portrait of the daily lives of ordinary North Koreans.
“…up until the 80s… you could make up anything about Kim Jong Il doing this, or Kim Il Sung doing that, and (readers) would think, ‘Oh, it’s North Korea, they are at it again,’” Seo says.
“But over the last decade and a half, that has definitely gone and people’s expectations (for North Korea reporting) has gone up.”
But hurdles remain, caused by political and ideological framings inherited from the Cold War-era. And despite the progress, source material for North Korea reports continues to be limited in scope for local journalists, with all source-types having their own deficiencies that can distort broader coverage.
For South Korean journalists, the North Korea issue remains hard to separate from political or ideological frames 0f reference, several journalists told NK News.
Seo Soo-min agrees that the ideological framework journalists work within is “deeply embedded in the people’s psyche.”
“Almost everyone in Korea, no matter what region or socio-economic background…there’s got to be a (North Korea-linked) story of that uncle, that grandpa who disappeared or who was taken to jail, whose kids couldn’t get a decent job.”
The result, for some journalists, is a tendency to report on unnecessarily negative stories about the North.
The tone of reporting in the South has a tendency to be easily swayed by the government
Take, for example, a recent Yonhap story about Pyongyang’s recently upgraded Sunan International airport. Citing a recent Skytrax ranking of the top 500 airports of the world, Yonhap used the data to conclude: “N. Korean airport among world’s worst in global survey”.
The problem? The ranking made no such claim, with Sunan International – now modern and clean following a major refurbishment – simply falling outside the top 500, like thousands of other airports around the world.
“If we criticize North Korea, especially in these days (of increased tensions), there would be no one who would be uncomfortable about this,” says Lee Young-jong of the Joongang Ilbo.
“However, if we describe good aspects of North Korea or mention some of their strong points, it could be troublesome.”
But beyond articles framed within the context of North Korea as an ‘enemy,’ another South Korean news agency journalist who requested anonymity says the tone of reporting in the South has a tendency to be easily swayed by the government’s stance.
As a result, changes in North Korea journalism have not been dictated by reality, but political swings and rifts within South Korea.
“During previous administrations which have tried to keep good relations with North Korea, the reports tend to be more serious and… try to report various aspects of North Korea as they are, (without) distorting,” one journalist said, speaking to NK News before the election of the left-leaning Moon Jae-in in May.
“On the other hand, during the current administration which has pursued hard-line policies on DPRK, North Korea reports tend to describe North Korea as evil.”
SOURCING, SOUTH KOREAN STYLE
What makes North Korea coverage more tricky is that with a limited range of obvious primary sources, an uncooperative government in Pyongyang, and access to DPRK websites and media legally off-limits for many, it’s easy to see why many South Korean journalists feel as though they cannot verify claims or rumors.
Consequently, headline-grabbing claims based on single anonymous sources are often par for the course in South Korea, with little to no effort made to corroborate or verify the nature of material. And as a result, articles often end up quickly proven wrong by academics and analysts better placed to navigate the scale of North Korea’s information ecosystem.
What is unfortunate, however, is that updates or corrections when a news story is proven wrong are pretty much non-existent in South Korea.
“In the journalistic world, North Korea is a story that is the hardest to cover in a proper way, but at the same time it is the easiest to write on because you don’t have any cost for not being accurate or for not having evidence,” a former government official who wished to remain unnamed told NK News.
“It is ironic – it is the hardest, and is at the same time the easiest.”
Furthermore, most South Korean journalists have either never reported within the North, or not done so for a decade or longer due to inter-Korean problems.
Headline-grabbing claims based on single anonymous sources are often par for the course in South Korea
As a result, the subject is abstract for many, with reporting based on testimony from defectors and recent visitors, the limited information released by the North and South Korean authorities, or the output provided by international research groups and think-tanks.
And just because someone is an official or scholar, doesn’t necessarily mean the information is going to be useful.
“Those who (journalists) quote, they don’t have grounds either, they don’t have the facts either, it is just their notion or their inclination or wishful thinking, whatever,” says the former official. “You quote them just because they are a professor, or they have been in the industry long enough. But we know that they don’t have the facts either.”
How, then, to know what is accurate?
Chun Su-jin of the Joongang Ilbo says that even though she tries to be as close as possible to “naked sources” like North Korean state media outlet KCNA, she cannot but feel limits to its use as talking to North Koreans is not normally possible.
“You cannot call Kim Jong Un, right?”
Beyond complicating things for South Korean journalists interested in verifying claims, the reliance of many reports on single sources also makes it difficult for readers to trust what they’re reading.
“If some report says something, we cannot know if that is true or not unless we actually go inside (North Korea), so it’s hard to figure out the factual grounds,” says Lee Sang-yong, a journalist at the Daily NK.
Nevertheless, in some cases, there appears to be little effort even to verify the most basic of information gathered by some reporters, even when there are clear mechanisms available.
The Yonhap story about the North Korean biochemicals expert who defected to Finland, for example, turned out to be based on a single source – an obscure human rights NGO – with no apparent effort made by the journalist to verify the story with the Finnish government before publishing and triggering a deluge of international speculation.
But sourcing problems go even further in South Korea, with the sources of information hidden for often unknowable reasons.
A September 2016 report that alleged “40 N. Korean overseas workers dead amid worsening work conditions” was simply based on a “report” that Yonhap had seen. No information about its publisher or credibility was provided – beyond that it had been provided simply by a “source”.
“You cannot call Kim Jong Un, right?”
What explains this lack of accountability, which even articulates to independent commentators in South Korea being quoted on an anonymous basis?
“Some of the reporters, like I said, are lazy,” says Chun Su-jin, though many are also “under so much pressure in terms of time.”
This is because many outlets and agencies in South Korea have quota systems, Chun says, which can impact quality control, perhaps why she says she’s heard senior reporters in Seoul complain about how many reports they have to file each day.
LIMITS OF SOURCES
Information officially and unofficially provided by government ministries and individual staffers comprises the basis for most news stories about the North in South Korea.
However, despite having the largest amount of data and contemporary information on North Korea, local reporters often find it hard to get confirmation about emerging stories from the government.
The Ministry of Unification (MOU), for example, often has no way to confirm stories until they’re made official by North Korea in some way, says the former government official who asked for anonymity.
Either the MOU just doesn’t know, or commenting on a specifics could “create a whole new set of problems or sometimes misunderstandings and suspicion for… political motivations.”
Meanwhile, while scholars or foreigners who visit North Korea or the borderland areas can talk to journalists far more easily than official government sources, what they see and can share is limited.
On the one hand, topics like leadership and the military are normally out of bounds for such sources, while on the other foreigners regularly visiting or working inside North Korea might be more reluctant to speak to South Korean journalists than they would to foreigners, because of how Pyongyang might perceive the ‘enemy-state’ interactions.
Defectors, another category of sources regularly used by South Korean journalists, pose their own problems when used to source news stories, some of the reporters NK News spoke to say.
“(They) try to raise their own price and create more provocative stories, so they write their own novels and these fantasy stories are being reported without filtering,” a veteran journalist, who also asked for anonymity, covering North Korea says.
“South Korean media’s North Korea coverage is a comedy”
And when defectors who become journalists themselves write news stories, even more problems can emerge, the veteran continued.
Notably, there are even cases in which North Korean defector journalists get sources from each other, pretending they are contacting someone inside the North, even together in the same place, the veteran journalist says.
The nature of North Korea means there are also limitations on what defectors can reliably say.
“North Korea is not a country where the media and the internet are developed and where there exists free communication,” the unnamed journalist says, meaning there are natural limitations to the level of knowledge defectors can have about nationwide events.
“The fact that they once lived in North Korea does not make them expert journalists,” says Lee Young-jong.
Journalists covering North Korea are, however, often tempted to use material provided by a defector even when they feel it needs more verification, the previous unnamed journalist says, feeling pressure other media may otherwise take the chance to get the information out first.
“The fact that they once lived in North Korea does not make them expert journalists”
“Well, if you’re not experienced it can happen, but for so-called veteran journalists, why would they copy those stories?” one journalist says.
“When you ask ‘why would you write that, are you a fool?’, they’d say they get pressure from their boss to cover those stories.”
As a result, “it’s a comedy – South Korean media’s North Korea coverage is a comedy.”
VICIOUS CYCLE BETWEEN DOMESTIC AND FOREIGN MEDIA
Things get more problematic when foreign media, especially big name outlets, picks up under-verified stories from South Korea, says the former government official.
“If a big (foreign) name outlet picks it up, it is like (the story) is a fact,” says the former official. And if it’s a big outlet like CNN, re-reporting a South Korean rumor, that can lead to “the Korean media picking it up again, so it becomes a vicious cycle.”
In this regard, CNN’s May 2015 report stating Kim Jong Un ordered his aunt Kim Kyong Hui to be put to death is instructive, contradicting an earlier report from the South Korean information authority National Intelligence Service (NIS) and South Korean Ministry of Unification.
“To start out with, it was nothing, then a Korean outlet like Yonhap picked it up, then CNN covered it, and the whole world covered it,” the former official says. “And because the whole world is covering it, all the Korean outlets also cover it again!”
Other times, however, it’s the way foreign source material gets interpreted by South Korean journalists that is the problem.
An August 2017 38 North satellite imagery analysis about high levels of activity at North Korean shipyards and submarine bases connected to submarine launched ballistic missile development got picked up by Yonhap reporters.
But the journalists’ decision to frame the story as a pending ICBM launch – something never mentioned in the article – promptly led to 38 North calling out the news agency for distributing “fake news” and misleading readers of its analysis.
Regardless of who is to blame for such cycles of misinformation, satellite imagery analysis of the type 38 North regularly conducts flags another area where South Korea falls surprisingly behind the rest of the world: creative usage of primary source materials.
With the exception of a tiny handful of official provisions of satellite imagery analysis by the ROK government to Yonhap News Agency, it’s only foreign journalists, analysts, and researchers that appear to be working in such a way when it comes to North Korea.
The same, it seems, goes for long-form investigation and research-driven journalism about North Korea. While the international press regularly focuses resources on creating multi-page investigations about North Korea – its overseas illicit network or WMD programs, for example – South Korean journalists rarely, if ever, get the opportunity to do anything remotely long form.
“A lot of it is just straight news, and again that has to do with South Korean conventional news writing,” says Seo Soo-min.
“I think it is bad, I think there needs to be more feature writing, I think there should be more experimentation with different formats; but they just don’t do it,” she adds.
“Why? It probably has something to do with the fact that they are afraid of going into less objective and more subjective realm of news where there is ample room for interpretation.”
Lee, the JoongAng journalist, agrees: “Basically, we cannot but produce hard news, right?”
South Korean journalists rarely, if ever, get the opportunity to do anything remotely long form
What can South Korean journalists do, then, to improve their work?
Covering North Korea without being swayed by political ideological influences or confused by faulty information requires a certain level of knowledge on the issue and years of experience, multiple journalists told NK News.
“I think the most urgent thing for journalists is to build their own expertise in North Korea and unification field,” Lee says.
“Unless journalists build their ability to write a strong solid article that goes deep with analysis, unless their articles can be compared to those of some scholars or experts, they cannot but be swayed by a group of experts or a government official,” Lee adds.
Building expertise is not something that can be done within a short time, but requires continuous effort throughout one’s career.
Chun Su-jin of the Joongang Ilbo says she has continued her efforts to learn and study more about North Korea, saying that it eventually helped her deal with tricky hurdles in the field.
“First, talk to a lot of experts and number two… read more and try to learn, try to study,” Chun says. “Number three would be try to have less speculation but more facts.”
Lee, further, argues that efforts by journalists to specialize and learn more should be supported by media organization’s policies and systems.
“For journalists to build expertise and experience, it is also highly important for South Korean media to invest in this field at an organizational level,” Lee says.
But few South Korean media have proper teams for reporting on North Korea, Lee says, and most organizations do not wish to invest in the field because it is not viewed as profitable.
A stone’s throw away, however, in Japan – where the news industry is unusually strong in comparison – massive resources are invested in the subject, with Kyodo news agency regularly having reporters waiting airside at Beijing airport to interview passing North Korean officials.
Lee says the urgent task for South Korean media, therefore, is to recognize the importance of North Korea journalism.
“They have to cultivate and support professional manpower… These things are needed.”
Improving North Korea journalism in South Korea could be done not just within the domestic news environment, but also through cooperation between domestic and foreign media.
In particular, foreign journalists have a favorable position in reporting breaking news that happens outside the peninsula, with North Korea seen not just as a domestic issue but one often discussed from an international lens.
Proactive communication with foreign media could, therefore, help domestic media get more information on news happening outside the peninsula, which could help make South Korean journalists faster and accurate.
Chun Su-jin, for example, says she could cover news better when she was in Kuala Lumpur last February to cover Kim Jong Nam’s death.
“I shared what I knew – obviously not everything … and they shared their own information as well,” Chun says of working with international media at the scene.
“So it was kind of a give and take and we shared information like which presser is taking place where, what time and… I would be there.”
The urgent task for South Korean media… is to recognize the importance of North Korea journalism
The opposite could also be done to also help foreign media in South Korea, where information tends to circulate inside certain circles among government officials and media personnel, often excluding foreign media or small domestic media outlets.
But according to Wang Son-taek of YTN, “South Korean regime collectivism” prevents that kind of cooperation from taking place.
“I would like to see the government or sources open the door a little bit more,” Wang says.
Cooperation could be done in another sense, between veteran journalists and defector journalists, Lee of the Joongang Ilbo further points out. While defector journalists can often times offer vivid testimonies, veteran journalists can present further insights over those stories.
“Depending solely on defector journalists would not work,” Lee says. “However, we could build a coworking environment so that North Korea veteran journalists can cooperate with some defector journalists.”
PUZZLING THE PIECES
Efforts to build expertise and establish a cooperative system between foreign and domestic media as well as defector journalists and veteran journalists, after all, is all about cross checking, journalists say.
“We need to find those missing parts from experts, defectors, or those who regularly visit North and South Korea for the purpose of cultural or economic exchanges,” a journalist who requested anonymity says.
“Many reports only show that an expert, a defector, or the government, either one of them, sees something with their own perspective, that’s it,” the journalist adds. “But the truth can be different from what they’re saying.”
Yet South Korean journalists talking to NK News point out that many reports tend to rely only on one source and do not involve the cross-checking of the source’s claims.
“Depending on one source is not desirable reporter behavior,” Lee says.
South Korean journalism is not the only to fall victim to the inevitable sensationalism that comes with covering the DPRK. From British tabloids to international news organizations, many journalists ultimately decide to not let the truth get the way of a story.
But reporters in the South have a greater civic responsibility: their work directly informs how their citizens view their Northern compatriots. Should unification come, decades of inaccurate and politically-driven reporting may not make for peaceful coexistence.
For now, it seems, the dismal view prevails. When asked to rate South Korean journalism on the North out of ten, one former official responds: “I don’t think we should even rank it.”
Additional reporting by Chad O’Carroll
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News