SEOUL – Determining whether stories about North Korea are true or false means delving into a very wide, gray area where the genuinely surreal mixes confusingly with the patently absurd.
For example, which of these reports about leader Kim Jong Un appears — at least on paper — the more likely?
That he executed his purged uncle, Jang Song Thaek, by feeding him naked to a pack of starving dogs, or that his birthday celebrations in Pyongyang were led by a serenade from a cross-dressing former NBA all-star with a penchant for facial piercings and celebrity wrestling?
The latter is borne out by a YouTube video showing ex-Chicago Bulls guard Dennis Rodman’s off-tune rendition of “Happy Birthday” before an exhibition basketball match watched by Kim on Wednesday.
On the other hand, the death-by-dog story, which was picked up by some international media, was apparently based on a satirical tweet posted on a Chinese website. This was then picked up by the Chinese newspaper Wen Wei Po, leading to shocked headlines in the Western media.
Differentiating fact from fiction is particularly difficult when it comes to North Korea given the country’s profound isolation, which makes any story not sanctioned by its highly secretive regime almost impossible to verify. At the same time, international interest in what goes on in North Korea is enormous, especially when it comes to sensational stories that satisfy a widespread perception of the country as brutal, backward and bizarre.
These factors combine to create a cavernous media echo chamber that provides resonance and substance to rumor and speculation. Elements can then be cherry-picked and put together into a sensational news item, as happened with the rumors swirling around Kim’s purge and execution of his uncle and political mentor, Jang, last month.
The most spectacular version would read something like this: Kim Jong Un had his elderly uncle, who had an affair with Kim’s wife, fed naked to a pack of 120 starving dogs, thereby also inducing a heart attack in his aunt, who now lies in a vegetative coma.
A number of these elements originated from the mainstream South Korean media and North Korean defector-run websites — both of which, analysts note, have a vested interest in painting the North and its leadership as a source of unimaginable horror.
Choi Jung Hoon, director of the Free North Korea radio station in Seoul, said the media frenzy surrounding Jang’s execution had proved particularly fertile ground.
“News from such a closed country like the North still remains limited . . . leaving unconfirmed speculation to fill the void,” Choi, who fled his homeland in 2007, said. “People are just imagining what they believe may go on in North Korea — a weird, wild place where apparently anything can happen.
“Sometimes the picture they draw is so ridiculous, so different from the country I lived (in) and know.”
But North Korea is complicit in fostering the atmosphere that generates such sensational headlines. Its relentless bolstering of the personality cult surrounding the ruling Kim dynasty, now in its third generation, and its apocalyptic, high-decibel threats of nuclear war are mostly meant for domestic consumption, but are nevertheless pounced on by the rest of the world as evidence of a country driven by paranoid delusion.
Kang Chan-ho, a senior journalist and North Korea specialist with Seoul’s liberal Hankyoreh daily, said many stories were concocted by the North’s critics.
“Some defectors tend to mix their own personal sense of grievance against Pyongyang with rumors that can never really be verified,” Kang said. “News media amplify these unverifiable stories to cater to their readers who like to read such wild stories about the North.”