by Alan MacLeod
When it comes to North Korea, stories are often too bad to be true.
The country has been in the news of late, as ongoing negotiations between the Trump and Kim Jong-un administrations appear to have soured. The chief casualty of this diplomatic failure, the New York Times (5/31/19) breathlessly reported, was Kim Jong-un’s negotiating team, with the vice chair of the North Korean Workers’ Party, Kim Yong-chol, being sent to a forced labor camp in “the latest example of how a senior North Korean official’s political fortune is made or broken at the whims of Kim Jong-un.”
Other outlets went further; Bloomberg (5/30/19) and Fox News (5/31/19) claimed Kim Jong-un had executed five top envoys for their failure, while Reuters (5/31/19) reported that a Korean interpreter had been locked up in a prison camp for a mistranslation, as part of what CNBC (5/30/19) called “a massive purge to divert attention away from internal turmoil and discontent.”
The story, based solely on an unverified claim from conservative South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, which has a history of printing highly inflammatory and even fake stories on the North, was picked up across the press, including by the Wall Street Journal (5/31/19), Time (5/31/19) and ABC News (5/31/19). There was one problem: Kim Yong-chol appeared only a few days later at a high profile art performance alongside Kim Jong-un.
This is far from the first time corporate media have been caught printing fake news about the country based on highly questionable sources. For example, it was widely reported (CNBC, 8/29/13; LA Times, 8/29/13; Business Insider, 8/29/13) that popular Korean singer and reputed former lover of Kim Jong-un, Hyon Song-wol, was executed in a “hail of machine gun fire while members of her orchestra looked on,” according to the same Chosun Ilbo—only for her to later appear in numerous public places, including at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Three years later, media were awash with supposedly factual reports that Gen. Ri Yong-gil (the officer President Trump awkwardly saluted in 2018) had been dramatically executed (e.g., Guardian, 2/10/16; Washington Times, 2/10/16), as part of a “brutal consolidation of power” (CNN, 2/10/16), only for him to turn up at a party congress. Even in its story about the miraculous resurrection, CNN (5/10/16) returned for more “expert” analysis to the same anonymous South Korean official who fed them fake news in the first place. This time, he repeated a highly dubious assertion that another general, Hyong Yong-chol, had been executed with an anti-aircraft gun, an accusation based on South Korean spies who the Washington Post (5/12/15) admitted were “as wrong as often as they are right” even as they passed along their claims anyway. (See FAIR.org, 5/13/15.)
North Korea is also a favorite location for wacky and easily disprovable stories. The BBC (3/28/14) originally reported that all men were required to wear their hair like Kim Jong-un, with other haircuts banned. Watching any video featuring North Korean officials would show this was untrue. Meanwhile many outlets (Fox News, 9/8/16; Daily Telegraph, 9/8/16; London Independent, 9/8/16) claimed the country had “banned sarcasm.”
Many of these stories are written by experts who appear to either display an astonishing lack of knowledge about the country or be engaged in active disinformation. The Washington Post’s Korea specialist claimed that tall buildings and electricity are “unknown” in North Korea (a cursory Google image search for “Pyongyang” would disprove this), while other journalists, such as Andrea Chalupa, believe that North Koreans are taught Australia and Africa don’t exist. Ironically, Chalupa styles herself an expert on George Orwell’s work.
Adam Johnson puts forward the theory of the “North Korea Law of Journalism,” where editorial standards and quality of reporting on a country are inversely proportional to its relationship with the US (FAIR.org, 7/6/17). Friendly countries are reported on favorably, whereas anything goes with enemy states like Venezuela, Iran or North Korea. FAIR has also documented how the threat the country with an economy less than one-thousandth the size of the US poses to us is consistently overemphasized (FAIR.org, 1/6/16, 3/22/17, 5/9/17).
Stories about the secretive nation are disproportionately based on accounts from biased sources with a clear incentive to lie, such as South Korean intelligence or media like Radio Free Asia, a US government-funded propaganda outlet created by an act of Congress. Added to this are the testimonies from North Korean defectors who are paid in cash for interviews, which the poor, jobless and isolated defectors themselves complain forces them to exaggerate their stories and reproduce certain narratives that journalists ask for.
Nor do journalists have incentive to report more neutrally or factually about Korea. Articles from the other side of the world that do not grab attention will not be commissioned by editors. Blood and guts sell, meaning the most alarmist stories are encouraged, and those offering them will go further in the business.
Errors in factual reporting that would lead to censure, dismissal or perhaps even worse if reporting on domestic affairs, or events in friendly nations, are forgiven, or even perversely incentivized, when writing stories about official enemies. (Governments typically discipline reporters by controlling access to official leaks, but these are of little value when they come from enemy states.)
In contrast, even factually reporting on the crimes of the US state or official allies is not an advisable career move, as seen by the treatment of whistleblowers, or publishers like Julian Assange. Such is the upside-down world of corporate journalism on enemy nations.
Featured image: Screenshot from a CNN report (5/10/16) on an “executed” North Korean official attending a party conference.