Why the Western media keeps getting North Korea wrong

Western media’s repeated blunders in reporting on North Korea show its continuing lack of understanding and expertise.

Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the completion of a fertiliser plant, in a region north of the capital, Pyongyang, in this image released on May 2, 2020 [KCNA via Reuters]

After 20 days of absence, proof of life for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un finally came on May 2. North Korean state media released images of the leader touring a fertiliser factory. Contrary to mounting speculation by much of the international media and many so-called North Korea watchers, Kim was clearly not on his deathbed.

Western journalists are not always adept at covering this reclusive country, but the latest fiasco surrounding Kim’s supposedly imminent demise proved just how eager they are to accept unconfirmed rumours as objective news and how poorly they judge information about North Korea. 

It all started on April 20, when the North Korean-defector-run news site Daily NK published a story that Kim had undergone heart surgery. Initially citing multiple sources, the site claimed that the North Korean leader “suffered from inflammation of blood vessels involving the heart … but his condition worsened”.

Daily NK often relies on anonymous informers in the North to run critical articles about the regime, and its track record on accuracy is spotty at best. In this instance, the English version of the article was later edited to say “a cardiovascular procedure” instead of “a heart surgery”, and the editor ran a correction that there were no multiple sources, but only one. 

Within hours, CNN put forward its own single-source piece, with the sensationalist headline, “US source: North Korean leader in grave danger after surgery.” MSNBC anchor Katy Tur tweeted to her more than 700,000 followers: “North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is brain dead, according to two US officials.” She called it a “CNN scoop” confirmed by NBC News.

CNN later revised its headline to “US monitoring intelligence that North Korean leader is in grave danger after surgery” and Tur apparently deleted her tweet, both conveying that the intel was less than credible. But the cat was already out of the bag. For the next 11 days all manner of news outlets and sites worldwide would join the game of guessing “Is Kim Jong Un really dead?” and “Who will be the next ruler of North Korea?”

So great was the noise generated by Western media that even the normally more reserved South Koreans became rattled, wondering if they had missed out on something, even though the country’s National Security Council maintained that “there are at present no unusual developments within North Korea”. At times “Kim Jong Un death” trumped even coronavirus in search rankings on major portal websites.

To be fair, the North Korean state contributed to the drama when Kim did not publicly pay respect to his grandfather Kim Il Sung on his April 15 birth anniversary for an unspecified reason. But in hindsight, there was not even a shred of concrete proof that Kim Jong Un’s health and the succession question merited serious discussion.

This is hardly the first major Western media fail over North Korea. In November 2018, the august New York Times ran a front-page article titled, “In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception.” Written by two reporters including Pulitzer-winning correspondent David E Sanger, it cited satellite imagery and a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to argue that North Korea was continuing to secretly develop missiles in violation of the June 2018 Singapore agreement between Kim and US President Donald Trump.

But as longtime Korea analyst Tim Shorrock wrote in his great takedown of the piece, the prominently embedded satellite photo was dated March 2018 – three months before Kim and Trump met in Singapore – and the missile bases presented as damning evidence of Kim’s duplicity had been known to South Korea for at least two years. Laughably, the CSIS report at the heart of the article even featured a disclaimer that “some of the information used in the preparation of this study may eventually prove to be incomplete or incorrect”.

All of that, though, did not stop the story from being spread by overeager Western media, and the Times tweeted that it stood by the story, without elaboration.

I have come to find that Western media are quick to blame North Korea for their own bad reporting, on the grounds that the regime does not share much information. The CNN article even contains an acknowledgment to that effect: “gathering intelligence out of North Korea is notoriously difficult … North Korea tightly controls any information surrounding its leader.” It is what many Western journalists on the North Korea beat tend to say in self-defence.

Over coffee in downtown Seoul a few years ago, the then-Asia director of a large European news organisation said just as much to me: “North Korea is important. Shouldn’t we at least try to report on it?”

That intention may be good, but does it justify publishing half-truths or articles written with outright ignorance? Again in June 2018, at the press conference following the Singapore summit, Trump commented that the US and South Korea “will stop the war games,” prompting a flurry of criticisms in Western media that he had slighted South Korea, which was “taken by surprise” and was allegedly concerned about the announcement.

That reading of Seoul’s position was entirely wrong since most of these Western reporters operate without deep knowledge of regional politics. The South Korean government, under president Moon Jae-in, has been of the position that reducing the chances of military confrontation – including limiting military exercises – is important for advancing inter-Korean peace. Anyone who knows this would never say that suspending war games would worry Seoul.

In my five years on the English-language media scene, I have met not one Western reporter covering the Korean Peninsula who could speak Korean fluently. Whether a foreign language skill is imperative to have when reporting abroad may be debatable, but in the context of North Korea coverage, not speaking Korean means sidelining from the global conversation qualified experts who do not speak English – of whom there are many in South Korea. 

Instead, their places are taken by the convenient English-speaking pundits, whose CVs reveal that most of them have no expertise related to North Korea; or by defectors whose suitability as commentators on the politics in Pyongyang or Kim’s state of mind is compromised by inexperience or obvious political motives.  

Had Western media made genuine attempts to engage with reputable North Korea experts in the South, many exaggerated rumours about the regime would not receive the attention that they do.

Already more than two weeks ago, a number of respected South Korean researchers, including Cheong Seong-Chang at the Sejong Institute, cautioned against overreading Kim’s public absence. 

On April 17, Cheong wrote in his widely read newsletter: “Although there may be a temporary issue with Chairman Kim Jong Un’s health or personal circumstance … the possibility of an emergency in the North is extremely unlikely.”

And that was indeed the case.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.