Media Criticism

Five ways to spot a bullsh*t story about North Korea

Some people, including at least one TV station in Arizona, are reprinting reports circulating on the internet that North Korea claims to have landed a man on the sun. Those reprinting this report are giving it the too-good-to-check treatment — they imply that they don’t quite believe North Korea said it, but they’re also too lazy and sloppy to check. Follow the trail of links to the source, however, and you come to a blog post that’s an apparent parody, and not even a very funny one (unfunny parodies can seem more credible than funny ones). The post cites KCNA as its source, but there is no such report on KCNA. As with the recent Jang-fed-to-pack-of-dogs story, it doesn’t pass the test that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

This can be a hard rule to apply to North Korea, whose regime has put most of the evidence out of reach, and has set a very high bar for “extraordinary” claims. Its official media really did claim recently that “[a]rchaeologists of the History Institute of the DPRK Academy of Social Sciences … reconfirmed a lair of the unicorn rode by King Tongmyong.” (In other, unrelated reports, KCNA refers to “unicorn-lions,” and acknowledges that they’re mythical.) KCNA’s recitation of “natural wonders” coinciding with Kim Jong Il’s death is something to behold. Finally, this is, after all, a nuclear-armed state of 23 million miserable, hungry people whose 31 year-old leader has never met a foreign leader or diplomat, but has met Dennis Rodman three times.

If North Korea really had launched a large rocket, however, that would have violated multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and drawn condemnations from governments around the world. Satellites would have detected the preparations for the launch and the launch itself. Governments would have confirmed it, and actual diplomats would be holding crisis meetings about the next U.N. resolution that they’d agree to pass (and tacitly, not to enforce).

The story, in other words, is obvious bullsh*t. Here, for the novice North Korea watcher, is a simple guide to calling bullsh*t on outlandish things you hear about North Korea:

(1) If the story sounds like bullsh*t and doesn’t cite a credible source, it’s probably bullsh*t. Because true things about North Korea can sound like bullsh*it, it helps to know something about North Korea’s behavioral history here. I’ve been doing this for ten years now, so I have that going for me, but it’s seldom possible to confirm reports from inside North Korea, and there will usually be room for argument about whether the outlandish things we hear are consistent with more credible reports. Example: The sun-landing story, or the unicorn story (Oh, sorry, North Korea really said that).

(2) If the story is sourced to someone who’s still inside Kim Jong Un’s court, then it’s probably bullsh*t. People working inside the royal court, unlike the vast majority of North Koreans, eat regularly, live comfortably, and even have access to entertainment. They have a lot to lose. They obtained their privileged positions after being vetted for any disloyal relatives or ancestors. They know that one false move will land them — and their spouses, and their parents, and their kids — in one of the worst places on the face of the Earth. People in those positions are extremely unlikely to have contact with foreign informants, and if they do, they’re even less likely to risk their necks to tell stories about what they see there, at least until they’re safely out of North Korea. Examples: A report alleging that Ri Sol Ju had an affair with the subsequently executed Jang Song Thaek, or the 2008 report that, following his stroke, Kim Jong Il was healthy enough to brush his own teeth.

(3) If the story alleges a fact that’s susceptible to verification, yet can’t be verified, then it’s probably bullsh*it. Examples: Once again, the “sun-landing” story, or a story that pornographic videos featuring Ri Sol Ju were circulating inside North Korea and China. If those reports were true, rest assured that those videos would be all over the internet by now. In addition, that story has a suspicious odor of disinformation to it. Which is a good segue to our next rule.

(4) If the story sounds like bullsh*t and reeks of disinformation, it’s probably bullsh*t. Recently, I’ve often suspected the South Koreans of spreading disinformation about the North, but any “press conference” held by the North Korean government qualifies. The most egregious example of this is the 2012 “press conference” put on by the North Koreans in Pyongyang, where a woman named Pak Jong Suk was paraded before the cameras to claim that South Korean spies had hoodwinked her into defecting to the South, and that she decided to return to North Korea after finding a miserable life in the South and missing the warm love of the Great General. The Associated Press reported the story with barely a hint of skepticism, and millions of readers around the world probably believed it. (By sheer coincidence, the AP had recently obtained the North Korean government’s permission to open a bureau in Pyongyang.) Reporters from a South Korean newspaper and The Washington Post report later did some digging in the Seoul neighborhood where Ms. Pak had lived, and found out that when the North Koreans learned that she was not dead (as reported) but alive and well in Seoul, they exiled her son, a musician, and his family to some bleak and hungry mountain village in the outer provinces. After Ms. Pak learned this, she returned to North Korea to turn herself in and plead for clemency for her son. The AP has never retracted the story. Nothing has been heard of Ms. Pak or her family since.

(5) If the story forecasts some major liberalizing policy change, is sourced exclusively to North Korean government sources, doesn’t fit with other known facts, and is related by a reporter/commentator who desperately wants to believe it, it’s probably bullsh*t. Actually, you’d never go wrong if you just put a period where I put the first comma in that last sentence. Examples: just about every cherry-picking and ultimately useless analysis you’ve read of a North Korean dictator’s New Year’s speech, or the 2012 story on agricultural reform that the North Koreans hand-fed to (you guessed it) the Associated Press, which generated much excitement in Washington and Seoul until nothing came of it.

Update: OK, I have to admit that the part where the astronaut “traveled at night to avoid being engulfed by the suns rays” was funny. This would not be even the second time that someone believed a parody story about North Korea. Last year, Xinhua was taken in by a report from The Onion, pronouncing Kim Jong Un the “sexiest man alive.” Apparently, all of Xinhua’s reporters and editors are straight men. Fat ones.


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