Stories of the secretive state captivate media and audiences alike. But often the stories are only half true, sometimes outright false — especially those coming from a particular South Korean source.
An article in one of South Korea's largest dailies, the ultraconservative Chosun Ilbo, made further headlines worldwide on Friday.
The report claimed that North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un had his special envoy to the US, Kim Hyok Chol, executed at the airport when he returned from the failed US summit in Hanoi in February. A handful of other high-ranking party executives were said to have been sent to "re-education" camps, including Kim Yong Chol, who was considered Kim Jong Un's right-hand man.
It was sensational news, which amid the deadlocked denuclearization negotiations between the North Korean leader and US President Donald Trump should have pointed to power struggles in the Pyongyang leadership circle.
A few minutes after the breaking news, news agency Reuters picked up the story followed by The New York Times. The story then landed in countless local and national newspapers worldwide via various news agencies. Like most other international media outlets, DW published an item citing the South Korean source.
Reports greatly exaggerated? Kim Hyok Chol, diplomat and nuclear negotiator, appeared at a televised ceremony on Sunday night after worldwide headlines declared him dead on Friday
Fascination supersedes accuracy
But on Sunday evening, the former intelligence chief Kim Yong Chol reappeared on a North Korean state news agency (KCNA) television program. Not in a labor camp, but at a ceremonial concert alongside other high-ranking party officials.
According to Chad O'Carroll, editor-in-chief of NK News, a respected specialist portal for North Korean news and information, Kim Hyok Chol was also recently spotted at the Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang.
Such stories from North Korea are popular in the daily media industry, with much speculation circulated from anonymous sources. For the most part, credible media sources and their disseminators unknowingly report these false stories as being factual and almost every rumor concerning the isolated dictatorship gets a run as a breaking news item. In many newsrooms there is a pervasive attitude that there is no way to verify the stories anyway.
Almost no country has been able to seal itself off the way North Korea has done. And according to the latest ranking by NGO Reporters Without Borders, only Turkmenistan and Eritrea are comparable when it comes to disregarding freedom of the press. But ironically, the mass media's fascination with the Kim dictatorship, combined with the nearly impenetrable fortress guarding information about the rogue state, has led to serious gaps in the accuracy of reporting on North Korea.
North Korean singer Hyon Song Wol, a member of the Central Committee and Kim's inner circle, was also reportedly killed only to show up again on television
The famous 'anonymous source'
One example is the bizarre hairstyle of the young dictator: Kim Jong Un is said to have forced his male comrades to sport the same hipster cut as he. Yet it was just another fake story that attracted worldwide media attention; one that could have been easily disproven by anyone who has ever walked through the streets of Pyongyang.
But Friday's false execution story is worthy of special consideration. The news was trumpeted by Chosun Ilbo — an outlet notorious for its dubious and politically motivated reporting on its northern neighbor. There was only one source — an anonymous one, naturally.
Chosun Ilbo also reported in 2013 that Kim Jong Un had his ex-girlfriend, singer Hyon Song Wol, executed for violating pornography law.
The fact that the singer, also a member of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party, appeared on television shortly thereafter was hardly noticed. And the widespread allegation in 2014 that Kim had his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, eaten by 120 hungry dogs? Turned out to be a hoax. All that can be known for certain is that he was killed.
Kim was frustrated with the collapse of the Hanoi talks — leading many observers to speculate at the target of his rage
Journalists put in a tight spot
On Friday afternoon at the correspondents' club in Seoul, journalists looked on with a mixture of anger and cynicism at how the fake execution story spread worldwide within a few hours.
It was clear to everyone there that the report was not verifiable and could be false — but perhaps less so to the readers from other corners of the world.
The execution rumor soon became reported fact: "Kim has Trump envoy shot" was the headline in German tabloid Bild, the country's highest-circulation newspaper.
Correspondents in Korea were quick to get requests from their editors back home for reports on the execution story. Some journalists saw it as a chance for a fast-selling item, but most rejected the assignment.
The reason? One does not need journalists on the ground to report on pure speculation. One correspondent from a French newspaper said: "To report on such rumors only further incentivizes the dubious reporting of South Korean newspapers." For Chosun Ilbo, it was not only a worldwide scoop but also free publicity. Practically all international media quoted the newspaper's name.
By the time the news turns out to be proven fake — just as it has so many times before — the subject is half-forgotten in today's fast-moving news cycle. Many corrections, often hidden and not prominently placed, do not reach readers.