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Opacity, Appetite for Salacious Stories Hamper North Korea Coverage

A man at South Korea's Seoul Railway Station views a TV screen showing file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in foreground, with education official Kim Yong Jin, second from left.
A man at South Korea's Seoul Railway Station views a TV screen showing file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in foreground, with education official Kim Yong Jin, second from left.

Reporting on developments inside secretive North Korea often becomes a guessing game, with some news organizations repeating salacious details that portray leader Kim Jong Un as ruthless and unhinged because there is great worldwide interest in it.

The problem is that most of these reports rely on anonymous sources – who are not always reliable and may have agendas, as we were reminded this week.

Citing an unnamed source, the South Korean newspaper Korea Joongang Daily wrongly reported that two officials in the North had been executed: Hwang Min, a former agriculture minister, and Ri Yong Jin, with the education ministry. The news organization also reported that one official was killed with an anti-aircraft gun.

Some Western media outlets picked up the Joongang Daily story, reinforcing the report's credibility but also prompting the South Korean government to respond to the false information.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry later issued a statement correcting the report. Spokesman Jeong Joon-hee said the North's "vice premier for education, Kim Yong Jin, was executed and the head of the North's United Front Department, Kim Yong Chol, was made to undergo revolutionary measures."

Jean Lee, the Associated Press' former Pyongyang bureau chief, denounced the idea of a news organization releasing information that hasn't been thoroughly checked out.

"I just think it is so irresponsible to put that story out before confirming the details, but it did push the South Korean government to confirm some of the details to get at least the government point of view," said Lee, now a global fellow with the Wilson Center, a policy think tank in Washington.

Sorting fact from fiction

It is difficult to discern what's happening within the leadership of the secretive and repressive North Korean state.

"Those who do know something are not going to talk to you because when they start talking, they will be in trouble,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea analyst and professor at Kookmin University.

At least 100 North Korean officials have been executed since Kim Jong Un took power in December 2011, the Institute for National Security Strategy said in 2015. The institute is affiliated with the South Korean National Intelligence Service.

But reports of executions and purges in North Korea are rarely confirmed and some have proven inaccurate.

Pyongyang did confirm the 2013 execution of Kim’s uncle by marriage, Jang Song Thaek, for allegedly plotting a military coup. The mentor to the young North Korean leader was increasingly seen as a rival source of power, analysts said.

Reports in February, however, that Ri Yong Gil, an official with the Korean People’s Army, had been executed for corruption turned out to be false when he showed up at North Korea's party congress in May.

FILE - North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watches a parade from a balcony at the Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang.
FILE - North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watches a parade from a balcony at the Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang.

Anonymous sources

As diplomatic and economic channels of communication between North and South Korea have been cut off over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program in defiance of U.N. sanctions, the North Korean defector community in the South has become an increasing source of insider knowledge.

"The sources have been replaced by phone calls with North Korean defectors and letters, so it is probably difficult to reveal the sources, who the defectors are," said defector Ahn Chan Il with the World Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul.

Keeping North Korean sources' identities secret is necessary to protect them and their families, but it also makes it more difficult to assess credibility of the information provided. And some news organizations, especially in South Korea, have been more than willing to repeat salacious stories without verification.

"I think that says something to the nature of the business of journalism right now, which is when it comes to North Korea, the more horrible, the more salacious, the more entertaining, the more it fits into the narrative as the North Koreans being these insane outliers," said Lee.

Reports that Kim’s uncle Jang was killed by a pack of starving dogs have been discredited. The original report was apparently a satirical post on a Chinese social media network that was taken as fact and went viral.

Nor has there been any confirmation that an associate of Jang’s was executed with a flamethrower.

Satellite images in 2015, however, captured what appeared to be a North Korean execution with an anti-aircraft gun.

South Korea

Official confirmation of developments inside Pyongyang from the government in Seoul is seen as more reliable, even though the National Intelligence Service is also gathering information from unnamed sources and has been wrong at times in the past.

An unidentified South Korean official also on Wednesday told reporters that Kim Yong Jin was arrested for what seemed to mean slouching – exhibiting a bad attitude while sitting in a chair – during a meeting of the People’s Supreme Assembly, then accused of being an anti-revolutionary before he was put before a firing squad.

Kim Yong Chol was sent to a re-education farm for a month until mid-August, according to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency.

Recent high-level defections to South Korea, such as that of Thae Yong Ho, the deputy ambassador of the North Korean embassy in London, could provide better insight into what is happening inside Kim Jong Un’s inner circle.

Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.