THE SPECULATIONS began on April 15 with Kim Jong-un’s conspicuous absence at the Kumsusan Palace “Day of the Sun” celebration commemorating his grandfather’s birthday. This aberration, snowballed with hypotheses about the leader’s debilitating health and a three-week absence, unleashed an avalanche of specious conclusions and articles. The rumors subsided with Kim’s reappearance, but the incident is symptomatic of the uncertainty and assumptions that pervade reporting about North Korea.
On April 20, an unnamed source told Daily NK* that Kim received cardiovascular surgery on the 12th at Hyangsan County Treatment Center, North Pyongan province. Daily NK’s article stated, “excessive smoking, obesity, and exhaustion were direct causes of Kim’s [current condition],” exacerbated due to recent visits to Baekdu Mountain. Attending surgeon of Kim Man-yu Hospital as well as the “best doctors” were said to have been called from Pyeongyang to Hyangsan to perform surgery on Kim, whose health improved considerably.
However, CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto said live on the 21st that he was, “...told by a U.S. official... that the U.S. is monitoring intelligence that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is in grave danger following a surgery.” Other U.S. officials expressed doubt about this claim, but CNN did not retract its story.
A stream of false reporting followed. MSNBC anchor Katy Tur tweeting that Kim is “brain dead, according to U.S. officials. He recently had cardiac surgery and slipped into a coma, according to one U.S. current and one former U.S. official.” Tur deleted the tweet and apologized for declaring unconfirmed information. On April 24, vice director of the Hong Kong Satellite TV channel posted on Weibo that Kim had died according to a “very solid source.” On April 25, Reuters reported that “China has dispatched a team to North Korea including medical experts to advise on [Kim], according to three people familiar with the situation.” The day after, the Japanese magazine Shukan Gendai claimed to have first-hand reports that Kim unexpectedly collapsed “clutching his chest” and his surgeon’s anxiety and relative inexperience with obese patients resulted in a delay that left Kim in a "vegetative state.”
On the 26th, special national security advisor for the South Korean government Moon Chung-in attempted to clear the waters in a Fox News interview, "Our government position is firm [:] Kim Jong-un is alive and well. He has been staying in the Wonsan area since April 13. No suspicious movements have so far been detected.”
Such government claims were overshadowed the next day as Thae Yong-ho, former North Korean diplomat recently elected to South Korean parliament, claimed on CNN: “I'm not quite sure whether he really had some surgery or whatever, but one thing is clear... he cannot stand up by himself or walk properly,” without citing any sources. President Trump also decided to contribute: “I can't tell you, exactly—yes, I do have a very good idea [where Kim is], but I can't talk about it now. I just wish him well." But later in the same press conference Trump told reporters, "He didn't say anything last Saturday. Nobody knows where he is so he obviously couldn't have said it. This is breaking news that Kim Jong-un made a statement on Saturday. I don't think so.”
Rumors continued to spread until May 1, when Ji Seong-ho—another North Korean defector-parliament elect—announced he is “99% certain that Kim had died after cardiovascular surgery [the previous weekend] and an official announcement would come as soon as Saturday.”
Looking for the body
Kim Jong-un reappeared on television on May 2, walking and laughing as he toured a new fertilizer factory for Labor Day (May 1). However, due to uncertainty endemic to reporting North Korean news, no one knows for certain why he was absent for three weeks.
Many still claim that Kim had undergone some medical treatment, though fewer believe it was a major event as heart surgery. North Korea specialist reporter Joo Sung-ha claimed in his YouTube channel that the very procedure outlined in Daily NK’s April 21 report was incompatible with North Korean systems, as the best doctors and an ambulance with a full set of surgical equipment travelled with the leader; Kim would not lose time being transferred to a hospital should he collapse. Joo considers it more likely that Kim was taking a respite for his nerves, strained from the additional economic quandaries from COVID-19.
Another theory is that Kim himself was social distancing to avoid contracting and/or spreading COVID-19. This would also explain Kim’s similar, longer absence from major events earlier this year. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, John Delury (Associate Prof., Graduate School of International Studies) cited the virus as his reason for doubting the rumors of Kim’s ill health. Kim is “minimizing public appearances because [North Korea] is worried about the spread of COVID-19 [there….] There has been a lot of emphasis on North Korea saying that they have no cases, but Kim has been extremely worried, [and it has also] been on North Korean media.”
Several have theorized that Kim also kept quiet for increased publicity. Head of Korean Association of North Korean Studies Jung Chang-yeol stated that even if it is possible that Kim had at least some light physical affliction, it is also possible that he observed the splash his absence at The Day of the Sun made and simply decided to stay quiet to further perplex South Korea and the United States while maintaining an aura of mysticism**. Yonhap News also claimed it was possible Kim was testing intelligence capabilities of each country implicated in his orchestrated absence.
Reasons for disbelief
Journalist Joo Sung-ha suspects this particular flood of false information partly due to the lack of good sources on North Korea. He claims that North Korean workers working abroad have mostly returned after increased sanctions against the country, and as North Korea has closed its borders since January due to COVID-19, no one is taking business trips out of the country either. This drove reporters to rely on sparse, profit-driven internal sources with poor information. But above all, he has criticized the increase in partisan consumption and production of information on North Korea, the latter of whom are not obligated to be accurate. Individual YouTubers, bloggers, and politicians have much to gain from publicizing specious information about North Korea to advance their goals; it is near impossible to ascertain North Korean news even after the incident, and the perpetrators themselves suffer few consequences should they be proven false at all***.
In an interview with OhmyNews, Secretary general Shin Mi-hee of Citizens’ Coalition for Democratic Media stated that U.S. and U.K. media are less invested in North Korean matters and that “as South Korea has overwhelmingly more information on North Korea, [South Korean press] simply quoting foreign news networks is irresponsible reporting.” There have been many prior cases of foreign networks releasing faulty reporting due to such lack of information, such as CNN’s 2014 report about Kim’s aunt Kim Kyung-hee’s death and The Times, and NBC claiming that Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek was fed to wild dogs****. In this case, responsible reporters who doubted the veracity of the rumor decided to not report it—an absence that fell below public attention.
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For a public with limited access to direct sources, screening for themselves fake North Korean news is a challenge—especially in an era when global social media obscures what is really going on. “There’s no easy solution,” said Professor Delury, “[but] an argument for a kind of traditional approach where you trust certain reporters and sources.”
Since May 2, the two North Korean defectors and parliament members have apologized for their presumptions; Kim Jong-un has disappeared from screens again, this time to no media fanfare.
*Daily NK: A South Korea based newspaper reporting from secondhand North Korean sources
***Joo Sung-ha TV