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Commentary: Purges and other unverified reports on North Korea

News reports on the hermit kingdom too often confirm what the rest of the world thinks it already knows, says Dartmouth College's Khang Vu.

Commentary: Purges and other unverified reports on North Korea

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) speaks with North Korean senior ruling party official Kim Yong Chol during the second US-North Korea summit at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi on February 28, 2019 (Photo: AFP/Saul LOEB)

HANOVER, New Hampshire: The North Korea-watching community is currently divided about a report in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo alleging a purge of several North Korean diplomats involved in the Hanoi summit, which collapsed without a much-touted nuclear deal.

According to newspaper report, Pyongyang’s special envoy to the US, Kim Hyok Chol, and other foreign ministry officials were executed, and North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator with Washington, Kim Yong Chol, was sentenced to hard labour for failing to judge the US stance during the Hanoi summit.

This is far from the only disagreement for close observers of North Korea. 

Several weeks earlier, the community was also split over the impact of sanctions on North Korea’s economy. 

On the one hand, North Korea is apparently suffering from one of the worst food crises in the recent years due to sanctions prohibiting oil-based inputs for agricultural production. Yet on the other hand, North Korea’s economy is viewed to be resilient enough to keep rice prices and gasoline prices stable and affordable.

North Korean Director of the United Front Department Kim Yong Chol arrives for a meeting at the Park Hwa Guest House in Pyongyang on Jul 6, 2018. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS)


These contradicting and ambiguous reports reflect the difficulty of analysing North Korea. 

The huge amount of interest in the Hermit Kingdom from the outside world makes every bit of information coming out of the country, whether verified or not, a source of endless curiosity. 

While the problem of unverified reports typically seems to minimal and temporary – because this would not be the first time South Korean press has wrongly reportedly about North Korea’s domestic issues – the impact of such ambiguity in reinforcing the image of North Korea as a poverty-stricken and paranoid state does do long-term harm in efforts to understand the country.

READ: North Korea not a problem to be solved but a country the world must learn to live with, a commentary

Unverified reports often spread quickly because for a Western audience there is a common perception of the North as a poor pariah state and the media has a penchant to report stories that fit such a view.

I do: A bride and groom walk along Pyongyang's Taedong river on a foggy evening. (Photo: AFP/Ed JONES)

Everyday Americans have little knowledge of North Korea, for example, except the regularly repeated image of Pyongyang as a nuclear-armed dynastic dictatorship. This makes news stories covering these issues more attractive and leads them to be featured more often on social media. 


Given the human tendency to look for information that supports existing beliefs rather than breaking new ground (confirmation bias), unverified news that fit with the common audience’s perception of North Korea typically generates more interest than does news about North Korea’s growing private economy, for instance, or debunking its urban legends.

READ: People who share misinformation online rarely fact-check, a commentary

This mixture of both unverified and credible reports on North Korea blurs the line between caricature and scholarship, and impedes a genuine assessment of Pyongyang’s intentions and the US' North Korea policy.

To take an example, news stories that rely on sources from the North Korean government, which blames international sanctions for the ongoing food shortage, risk ignoring the reality that North Korea’s struggle with food has been constant and the shortage has not yet reached a crisis level. 

But because such a story fits the general perception of a sanctions-hit North Korean population, it will often receive more attention and lead to calls to send humanitarian aid. 

The sanctions on North Korea carry clear exemptions for aid work in a country where an estimated 18 million people need some sort of humanitarian assistance (Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-Je)

And in the context of US and South Korean efforts to strike a balance between humanitarian aid and sanctions, such reports can lead to pressure to make what is really a false choice – relax sanctions or deny the North Korean population basic human needs.

If North Korean is overstating the food shortage to get sanctions lifted, Washington and Seoul need to be wary, and carefully assess the efficiency of sanctions in changing North Korea’s behaviour regarding its nuclear programme.


Another example is news stories about North Korea’s purges. Such reports have long attracted huge attention due to their emphasis on the North as a Stalinist state. However, these purge stories are generally false.

While it is true that North Korea is a dictatorship, Kim may not have an unlimited power as commonly portrayed. 

Unverified news stories about Kim Jong Un purging his subordinates, regardless of their ranks, can create a misperception that Kim’s power is unchecked and lead to a dangerous assumption that dealing with Kim alone can lead to North Korea’s denuclearisation. 

READ: A tale of one North Korea defector and hopes for peace on the peninsula, a commentary

However, just as the old saying goes that “all politics is local,” Kim has an audience he must pay attention to, making it important to look beyond Kim to better gauge North Korea’s intentions.

While it takes lots of effort to overcome confirmation bias, it is important to distinguish reliable and logical reports from unverified ones. 

Stories relying on one source should be read with caution for the information cannot be independently confirmed. 

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un supervises a military drill in North Korea, in this May 10, 2019 photo supplied by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). (Photo: KCNA via REUTERS)

North Korean officials can disappear from the scene for many reasons, not only purges, so the first conclusion should not be that they have been executed or sent to labour camps. 

Similarly, stories on the state of North Korea’s economy should be backed up with data on exchange rates and local prices instead of relying on government statements.

Although North Korea is a hard case for intelligence, this should not mean a trade-off of credibility for more clicks on stories.

Khang X Vu is a Master's candidate at Dartmouth College, where he focuses on East Asian politics and US East Asia policy. This commentary first appeared on Lowy Institute's blog The Interpreter. Read it here.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)


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