is an American journalist and political commentator at RT. Follow her on Twitter @velocirapture23
The rash of stories claiming North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is on his deathbed – all sourced to a South Korean blog post – show Western media will run any horrific item on the Hermit Kingdom, confident they won’t be contradicted.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is clinging to life by a thread after heart surgery went horribly, horribly wrong! Or at least, US intelligence is monitoring reports that Kim was “in grave danger” after botched surgery, as CNN reported on Monday. The source for Kim’s health troubles was a single report from South Korean web outlet The Daily NK, itself citing a single source in the North.
While CNN acknowledged it “couldn’t independently verify” the story (or anything else happening in North Korea), the outlet ran with it anyway, leading others to do the same. And while the Guardian eventually front-loaded its own article with official denials from China and South Korea as the story began to unravel, its Twitter account reveals the original title, “North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has heart surgery – report,” a much more authoritative-sounding line than the lukewarm “South Korea and China play down Kim Jong-un health claims” it became.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has heart surgery – report https://t.co/17wDmqxZex
— The Guardian (@guardian) April 21, 2020
By the time the stories had been edited, however, fervent speculation on “the North Korean succession” was already underway.
None of these stories thought to mention that the South Korean source regularly runs sensationalist pieces depicting the North as a seething pit of death and misery (“Pyongyang hospital construction workers stealing to survive” and “Chagang Province forestry official executed for illegal corn farm” are some recent headlines). Nor do they mention that the South and North never formally concluded the decades-long war that split the Korean landmass, or explain that such atrocity propaganda is typical among enemies.
Soldiers working at the Pyongyang General Hospital construction site are stealing food and even electronics from nearby homes, Daily NK sources in Pyongyang report. https://t.co/YLRv0PHrw4#DPRK#NorthKoreapic.twitter.com/oe77rd2xG5
— The Daily NK (@The_Daily_NK) April 20, 2020
Indeed, Western media rely on South Korea for news about the North, a weakness which has resulted in some truly preposterous stories being reported with a straight face by Western outlets eager to take a whack at the DPRK piñata.
A 2014 story claiming Kim had his uncle (and several aides) killed by stripping them naked and feeding them to a pack of starving dogs was reported by numerous “reputable” outlets, including NBC and the UK’s Channel 4 even though it originated with a satirical post on a Chinese social network.
About the only thing more embarrassing than publishing the Chinese equivalent of the Onion as straight news is for one of Kim’s “grisly execution” victims to appear in public alongside her executioner. The Telegraph, HuffPost and other ‘reputable’ Western outlets reported in 2013 that Kim had his ex-girlfriend, pop singer Hyon Song-wol, executed by firing squad, citing a South Korean news outlet that in turn cited an anonymous Chinese source. The story was proven spectacularly false last year, when she was photographed alongside the North Korean leader on a factory tour. Incredibly, some outlets still tried to spin the story – the Daily Mail hinted that 10 performers rumored to have been shot alongside her were actually dead, citing South Korea’s intelligence director as their source in a way that implied only Hyon had managed to (literally) dodge the executioner’s bullets.
Yet “numerous” individuals reported executed in South Korean media have later surfaced very much alive, News.com.au admitted last year…before repeating unverified claims that multiple North Korean officials had been executed over the failed US-DPRK peace talks in Vietnam. Why do these outlets keep repeating South Korean propaganda if they know it’s false?
It’s easy for western media to run the most lurid horror stories about the ‘hermit kingdom,’ confident that the only denials will come from state-run media and will be summarily dismissed as the controlled rantings of an ‘Evil Dictator’. Who are you going to believe, a charter member of the Axis of Evil or good old CNN? At a time when the media establishment is widely distrusted and loathed almost as much as politicians, atrocity propaganda is always good for ratings and patriotic sentiment, and there’s no risk of an inconvenient fact-checker bumbling in and making life difficult.
It’s worth noting that trying something similar with other heads of state lasts about five minutes. When UK PM Boris Johnson was hospitalized with coronavirus last month, RIA Novosti published an anonymous NHS source’s claim that he was more seriously ill than the public knew and was to be placed on a ventilator. This was immediately slapped down as “Russian disinformation” (even though it was later admitted that Johnson’s condition had worsened significantly while in hospital). But if the mainstream media is willing to perpetrate this level of disinformation about North Korea, it’s long past time to reconsider trusting their reporting on other countries as well.