Mansudae Korea

North Korea & Social Media: The Land of Whispers

At time of writing, social media is buzzing with the *unsourced* story of the illness, possibly death, although maybe not, of Kim Jong Un. Needless to say, I’m skeptical, and most likely by the time you’re reading this, things will have calmed down and we’ll all be able to get on with enjoying the lockdown. However, the hearsay style reporting which led to this social media frenzy is not without real-world consequences.


Previous Instances

It’s important to note that this isn’t the first time that Marshal has been the subject of rumours regarding his health. In 2014, reports began to trickle into the consciousness of the western media that Kim Jong Un hadn’t been seen in public for a number of weeks. This fuelled speculation that he was ill, or worse. These rumours were disproved when he returned to the front pages of Rodong Sinmun using a cane, suggesting some kind of relatively minor medical hindrance.

In a similar case, one of the leading artists in the Moranbong band was reportedly executed in 2013 after reports from Chosun Ilbo suggested as such. She later reappeared in public and has since gone on to become an important part of the Worker’s Party infrastructure, meeting with South Korean officials to plan the DPRK’s participation in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

In both these cases, the rumour mill went into overdrive and led reputable news organisations to publish unsourced rumours which later turned out to be completely false. Surely these giants of the media world would learn from their mistakes and proceed with caution the next time rumours began swirling?


2020

On April 21, 2020, The Daily NK website published an article in Korean reporting that Kim Jong Un was receiving special treatment after undergoing cardiovascular surgery. This, combined with his notable absence from the Day of the Sun celebrations at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on April 15 fuelled speculation that he was absent due to medical issues.

KCNA photos from Kumsusan on Apr. 15

CNN was the first to throw the story into the limelight with an article titled:

“US monitoring intelligence that North Korean leader is in grave danger after surgery”

At time of writing, no credible sources have been published and it all seems linked to the original Daily NK article. An article, which one of the website’s translators later tweeted was not grounds for all  the ongoing speculation.

It all seems to be blown out of proportion, and that theme continued as other major news organisations such as Reuters and Bloomberg followed suit, publishing stories about the grave situation of the DPRK’s leader.


Impact

These media frenzies are not harmless, and in fact, carry with them a big risk. In 2019, I published a quick spur-of-the-moment piece about the dangers of the false missile alert in Japan and South Korea. The argument I used then was to point out that adding more random information to an already confusing situation increases the risk that mistakes will be made. In that case, the risk was an accidental restarting of conflict or at least increasing tensions. This time, the risk is broader.

Policy makers need a clear understanding of what’s going on in Korea in order to act effectively. In situations where important figures of government may be incapacitated, it’s important that officials and diplomats around the world get clear information about the situation from trusted sources. Even for individuals who aren’t important in a policy making capacity, seeing something reported by trusted groups such as Reuters or CNN can perpetuate rumours to the point where the begin to muddy the waters. What we’ve seen tonight is conflicting reports from different news organisations passing on contradictory information, all of which makes it harder for anyone to understand what’s going on.

As I’ve said, I’m confident this has all be blown out of proportion, but had this been a real situation, mass confusion benefits nobody.

Benjamin Weston

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