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Myths in the Media: Why We Need To Get North Korea “Right”

North Korea, by design, is the most insulated country in the world. Information rarely seeps outside its border, making it one of the most difficult countries to watch and predict. Due to this lack of information, it is imperative for the media—reporters, opinion writers, and news casters alike—to ensure the image they present on North Korea is based on known, factual evidence and sourced properly to ensure readers are not blindly fed false notions about North Korea.

Image courtesy of Dan Scavino, 2019. (Public Domain)

Unsubstantiated and false reports tend to feed several misconceptions about North Korea, including its penchant for outlandish scientific claims. For example, in November 2012, North Korean state media reported that archeologists discovered a unicorn layer about 200 meters outside of Pyongyang. The report quickly made international headlines, with western media playing up the discovery as North Korea simply claiming unicorns exist. Time even ran an article titled “Unicorns’ Existence Proven, Says North Korea.”

Without the context surrounding the report, however, it appears to be just another publicity stunt from a propaganda machine famous for churring out unusual reports.  Its release, however, was a calculated move by the North Korean propaganda machine. The existence of the layer in Pyongyang proves the city was the capitol of a major dynasty in Korean history. Making this claim provided North Korea with a slightly stronger historical backing to legitimate its claim as the rightful state on the Korean Peninsula.

Another misconception false reporting feeds, is the idea that Kim regime is irrational and vengeful. South Korean conservative media has been very eager to spread this image by releasing thinly sourced reports on possible purges of high ranking officials in the Kim regime for seemingly petty offenses.

The first was in 2013, soon after a young Kim Jung-un came to power, when The Choson Ilbo, a conservative newspaper in South Korea, reported the execution of North Korean singer Hyon Song-wol for violating the countries pornography laws. According to the report, the singer was “executed with machine guns while the key members” of her orchestra watched. The report, however, turned out to be false. A few months later Hyon was seen on state television and, recently, has taken up the role of Vice Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, a high-profile job within the Korean Worker’s Party which gives her authority over how the regime presents itself to the public and the outside world.

Recently, another rumor made the rounds of South Korean conservative media. On May 31, The Choson Ilbo circulated a rumor that Kim Jung-un executed Kim Hyok-chol, his main nuclear negotiator, along with four other Ministry of Foreign Affairs personnel via firing squad for alleged wrongdoings after the Hanoi Summit. As expected, the news quickly made international headlines, with western experts urging caution until the story could be confirmed. Again, the story turned out to be false; One of the “purged” officials appeared days later in state media and recent reporting has revealed that Kim Hyok-chol is alive in North Korea.

Despite the depiction in South Korean media, patterns of purges show just how rational and insecure the regime is. The executions of Jang Song-taek and Kim Jong-nam, both related to Kim Jung-un, were carried out because of their ability to challenge the legitimacy of the Kim regime domestically and internationally. Because purges play an important role in highlighting the power struggle within North Korea, it is imperative that international media coverage of North Korean purges be as accurate as possible.

All of this raises one key question: how can we properly report on a country which is known for being an information black hole? First, reports need to be sourced properly and thoroughly. By working to constantly confirm reports on North Korea, we can create a more nuanced understanding of the regime. Second, North Korea watchers across the world need to be able to admit when they are wrong and be open to adjusting to a new reality. For example, in 2018, I wrote a column in which I wrongly predicted that North Korea’s diplomacy would not venture beyond the Winter Olympics. Despite my prediction, North Korea’s diplomatic outreach has lasted for close to two years and included two summits with American President Donald Trump.

In a recent column for The Korea Times, David Tizzard wrote, “we have a duty to report accurately and provide observation as we see them in a manner that is fair.” Currently, reporting on North Korea is rife with misunderstanding and blatantly false assumptions, fueling misperceptions and myths about a country with nuclear weapons. By striving to be better, the media can provide the public and policy makers with a more accurate, realistic picture of the political situation in North Korea.


Benjamin Zimmer

Benjamin is a Master of International Affairs student at The Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University where he focuses on East Asia and intelligence. He is the creator of The Korea Page: News and Analysis from the Korean Peninsula. His research interests include North Korean politics, the North Korea-United States relationship, and nuclear proliferation. His writings have appeared in The Peninsula Report, Foreign Policy Press, and The Sphere. He can be found on twitter at @bzimmer8.

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