Caveats on information originating in the DPRK

According to the Korea Times:

North Korea’s former premier Yon Hyong-muk died, presumably of pancreatic cancer in 2005. At the height of his career, he was the most powerful person in the North outside the Kim Jong-il family. He was premier of North Korea from 1989 until 1992.

He is the person who signed the South-North Basic Agreement in 1991. The agreement on reconciliation, nonaggression, exchanges and cooperation is regarded as the bible for inter-Korean relations.

This week, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that Kim Jong-il had killed him. Yon’s story is one of many stories making outsiders feel puzzled when they read news on North Korea.

Verifying reports on North Korea is quite elusive and puzzling.

For the past two decades, there have been occasional reports over the imminent collapse of North Korea. Then people wonder why this does not happen.

We are showered with a wide variety of news on North Korea daily. There have also been reports on the execution of North Korean technocrats. Later some of them appear at official functions again. Then people ask themselves whether some people concoct stories to undermine the North or for their political gain.

South Korean media often depend on refugees and their organizations which have their own agenda ― to harm the North Korean system or to work for the democratization of North Korea. These sources are familiar with how the North is ruled and understand the North Korean language. They often claim that they received specific pieces of information from their collaborators living in the North. Those sources of information were never confirmed, however.

Stories often sound interesting, and even believable, but have no proven grounds. The Japanese press is equally imaginative in reporting make-believe stories, but not credible factual stories, on North Korea.

RFA which is often quoted by South Korean news organizations, also depends heavily on North Korean refugees for its reporting.

In other words, many of the news stories reported in the press are unconfirmed stories. It is like saying, “We do not care if people believe it or not, but this is our story.’’.

Verification is not that difficult on such news on economic policy like currency reform, control over markets, daily life and the economy. If people hear more or less from different sources, it is probably true. However, such confirmation is only possible on news about market policies, prices and administrative regulations at lower levels.

Over half of all published reports on domestic power politics and succession, have eventually been shown to be false.

Over the last three to four years, each of the three sons of Kim Jong-il, as well as other members of his family were reported to be confirmed successors.

There is no way to prove the alleged power struggle or succession. Nothing can be done to substantiate such reports until official announcements are made.

Many South Korean news agencies quote North Korean defectors in publishing articles. Are these defectors representing North Korean society? Do they know the inside story of the regime? They may be talking about either end of an elephant. It is difficult to know everything about North Korea without knowing the full picture of an elephant.

A story on a defector is sometimes published as if it were representing North Korean society. News agencies sometimes boast that they have communication channels with many North Koreans inside the North. Is it really possible for North Koreans inside the tightly controlled society to communicate with the outside world?

Even different news agencies interpret the same North Korean story from their ideological angles. The conservative Chosun Ilbo and progressive Hankyroreh often publish the same article from different angles. We need to take them with a grain of salt.

Many online news outlets on North Korea have cropped up in South Korea. People wonder who sponsor these news outlets. They need money to run the news outlets. Without advertising, how can they stand on their own two feet? What are their purposes for running such news outlets? Are they seeking to topple the North Korean regime? Are they dedicated to reporting news without any bias?

They make daily reports on the North. It may be naive to believe all of them. It is also naive to distrust all of them.

In checking news on North Korea, we need some steps. First is common sense. Repeated news by different agencies and media may be true. All media in Korea copy Yonhap articles. We can also obtain technical data through Google Earth, open-source data, statistics from the U.N. and various sources such as JETRO, KOTRA, IAEA, WFP, NGO reports and International Crisis Group.

Human intelligence is also vital. They include defectors, visitors to North Korea, both former and incumbent diplomats in the North and government officials. Out of these sources, only defectors are willing to talk to the media or open source networks, and others will not speak to the media. Accumulated know-how based on expertise is also necessary. When there are reports, it may be safe to contact North Korea experts for verification or interpretation.

When the truth of news is difficult to confirm, it is difficult for policymakers to make a decision on North Korea. Whether accurate or inaccurate, news on North Korea has an impact on South Koreans and policymakers. Making a judgment on assumptions, not on facts, is quite risky and dangerous. Leaders need to be careful in commenting on North Korea as their impact is quite widespread. Talking about North Korea based on unconfirmed news is all the more dangerous.

Read the full story here:
Accuracy of reports on North Korea
Korea Times
Lee Chang-sup


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