The report, published by an influential South Korean newspaper on May 31, made a huge commotion in Seoul, likely because the story also had the hallmarks of a tale of palace intrigue.
It claimed North Korea’s chief negotiator at the DPRK-U.S. Hanoi summit had been executed, the younger sister of the supreme leader had received an order to lay low, a high-ranking official was sent for forced labor and reeducation, and another female diplomat and an elite translator were sent to a prison camp.
According to the reports, Kim Jong Un had them punished because of the disappointing outcome of the February summit.
But the report in question has now become more infamous than famous: while the major claim of the newspaper, that the negotiator was executed, has not been verified yet, the report — and those decrying it as fake news — has nonetheless gone viral here in South Korea.
But why do these media rumors spread like wildfire? The answer is deeply rooted in South Korean politics and demonstrates how differing attitudes towards the North shape our media culture.
PERFECT FUEL FOR A PARTISAN FIGHT
Just after the country was divided in 1945 and the war in 1950, the South Korean community was also internally divided into two camps: pro-hardline and pro-engagement. Hardliners have come to dominate conservative politics, while engagement has become a mainstay of progressive political platforms.
Conservatives regard the invasion of the South by North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in 1950 as the source of all our security problems, and see the elimination of the leader of the North as a solution to that issue. For them, North Korea is simply an enemy to destroy.
The report in question has now become more infamous than famous
On the contrary, the progressives say the roots of our problems come from the division of the country itself in 1945, when the U.S. and the USSR split Korea in two. Under this approach, there is no issue with South Korea engaging with the North.
So, in this framework, the conservative side sees the other side as potential traitors and the progressives treat the other side as warmongers. In this context, the report in question was the perfect spark for a big fight between the deep suspicion of the conservatives and the serious animosity of the progressives.
CONSERVATIVES WANT TO BELIEVE…
It is not yet confirmed whether the report in question is false or not, though the fact is that two prominent figures in the story, Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Chol, reappeared shortly after its publication.
It is important to note that neither was said to have been killed: Kim Yo Jong was reported to have been told to lie low and Kim Yong Chol was sent to a labor camp.
But even if that was the case, a month and a half is far too short a timeframe to be back in public, given similar cases in North Korea in the past.
As for Kim Hyok Chol, the timing of his alleged March execution is also a matter of debate. If he was guilty of the failure of the Hanoi summit, Kim Yong Chol should have been punished in a similar manner: after all, he was Kim Hyok Chol’s supervisor.
However, Kim Yong Chol maintained his position at a full meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) on April 9 and the first meeting of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly on April 11.
He was confirmed again as a vice chairman of the party, and a member of the State Affairs Commission, though he does appear to have been replaced as director of United Front Department of the WPK.
The problem is that this likely misinformation does not give any conservatives reason to doubt the story: they believe that the story could carry some truth about the wicked regime of Kim family in the North.
A story about the execution of a senior diplomat, forced labor and prison camps can be used to portray the North and the Kim Jong Un regime in a negative light.
The conservative side in South Korea sees president Moon Jae-in as having pro-North Korean sympathies. The President’s policies are selling the country to the North, they believe, and they must act to save the Republic of Korea, its freedom and market economy.
Reports of a brutal purge bolster this narrative by exposing the evil aspects of the North Korean regime. Past misreports of gruesome goings-on in the DPRK went unchallenged for this reason: no journalist need apologize, because the stories were justified in the name of patriotic campaigns against the enemy.
It is not yet confirmed whether the report in question is false or not
… BUT PROGRESSIVES SEE “DEMONIZATION”
Misreporting about the North is described differently by the progressive camp in South Korea, of course, with such misinformation often labeled as “demonization.”
In their eyes, false reports were produced in order to create a bad image of North Korea and to encourage a spirit of hostility against the nation’s enemies.
This camp believes that the country should push engagement with the North because it is the division of Korea that is the source of all security problems on the peninsula. However, they claim, the demonization of the North by conservatives has undermined these efforts.
So, the progressive side regards the reports in question as a classic example of demonization, warning they could harm Moon’s diplomatic efforts to construct a peace regime on the Korean peninsula and bring about denuclearization by swaying public opinion against the North.
Growing criticism of engagement with the North, of course, could kill negotiations between North Korea and the United States and other opportunities for denuclearization and reunification.
But unfortunately, while progressives fight against this demonization of the North they themselves demonize and attack the other side. The fight gets more and more confusing and the issue gets more and more politicized.
This North Korean report got a significant reaction in South Korea, especially from the progressive side
THE NORTH WEIGHS IN
As debate ensued here in the South, the North appeared to respond to the hostile story against them, making public photos of Kim Yong Chol and Kim Yo Jong participating in state-level events just days after they were reported to have been sidelined.
The message of the photos was loud and clear: the report was false. It was evident that both figures continued to enjoy high status in North Korean society.
This North Korean report got a significant reaction in South Korea, especially from the progressive side, who cited the photos as evidence that the Chosun Ilbo had misreported.
And the fight between conservatives and progressives is not yet finished either: the fate of Kim Hyok Chol, Kim Song Hye, and Shin Hye Young is yet to be confirmed. If Kim Hyok Chol shows up in public in North Korea, it will be safe to say that the report was totally inaccurate.
But the fight will not stop there: it’s clear that misreporting on North Korea isn’t going anywhere.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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