The State Department may want to worry less about North Korea’s nuclear production and more about its apparent advanced necromancy program, because Kim Hyok-chol is far from the only person executed in the country still walking around and conducting business as usual.
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA — If the mainstream media is to be believed, North Korea is a land full of prison camps, zombies and unicorns.
On Friday, the right-wing South Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that an anonymous source had informed them that Kim Yong Chol, the country’s envoy to the U.S., had been sent to a labor camp over the failure of talks with the Trump administration in Hanoi. Those claims were reported ubiquitously in American media, often without attribution to the original, singular anonymous source. Claims that four other high-ranking officials were either fired, executed or sent to prison camps also circulated widely. Now, media are being forced to walk things back after Kim Yong Chol was spotted with Chairman Kim Jong-un at an art performance.
When asked about the story, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “We’ve seen the reporting … we’re doing our best to check it out.”
While the other officials who were said to have been disappeared in various ways have not yet been spotted, there is an abundance of reasons to be skeptical of their reported fates.
The walking living
The State Department may also want to worry less about North Korea’s nuclear production and more about its apparent advanced necromancy program, because Kim Hyok-chol is far from the only person executed in the country still walking around and conducting business as usual.
In 2016, a North Korean defector claimed that military officer Ri Yong-gil had been executed and the media regurgitated the claim uncritically, as did South Korean politicians and military brass. Perhaps it was only when he passed over to the other side that he learned the necessary skills that qualified him for a promotion in 2018 to the position of Chief of General Staff.
In 2013, Hyon Song-wol, a famous singer in North Korea, was reported to have been executed by authorities in a “hail of machine gun fire while members of her orchestra looked on.” It appears that the bullets didn’t do any lasting damage to her lungs, however, as she is still singing her heart out with her all-girl pop band.
In 2010, South Korean media reported that a soccer coach had been executed in North Korea. So reporter Jean H. Lee was probably shocked when she “ran into him at the Pyongyang airport.”
Zombies aren’t the only mythical creatures endemic to the DPRK, if the media is to be believed. In 2014, it was widely reported that DPRK state news services announced the discovery of the lair belonging to a unicorn. That, however, turned out to be a mistranslation, but one not discovered prior to former Fox News firebrand Bill O’Reilly telling his massive audience that “the North Korean government announced that it found a unicorn.”
One article, which was updated after the mistake was realized, regurgitates a number of other odd claims, arguing that Koreans believe that Kim Jong-il, the late father of the current chairman, “reportedly invented the hamburger, wrote 1,500 books in college and shot 11 holes-in-one the first time he played golf, according to Time magazine.”
These claims are easy for Americans to believe because they have been conditioned to demonize North Korea since the 1950’s when America killed a fifth of the country’s population and bombed 85 percent of the buildings there.
A nation seen in caricature
North Korea has its problems, as do all other countries; but outsized claims about it proliferate in the West.
For example, Kim Jong-un did have his uncle executed. He did not, however, do it by having him “stripped naked and thrown into a cage before being eaten alive by 120 starving dogs.” It is also untrue that, as reports have stated, North Korean officials have been executed over “bad posture.”
Likewise, reports of a ban on sarcasm are as fake as reports that all North Korean men are forced to get the same haircut as Chairman Kim. The latter claim was debunked by a pair of YouTube comedians who actually traveled to North Korea to get a haircut and do a comedic documentary exposing the stenographic nature of the media’s reporting on the country.
The report last year that said that North Korea had accidentally dropped an intermediate-range ballistic missile on one of its own cities remains uncorroborated by satellite footage.
If this isn't more fake news about North Korea, I'll eat my own IRBMhttps://t.co/MdsTU6Gbln
— Alex Rubinstein (@RealAlexRubi) January 4, 2018
The reason fake news proliferates the way it does with North Korea is not just Western orientalism. It is difficult to verify information from the country, and those with first-hand knowledge of it — for example, the man who “defected” last year but turned out to be a fugitive from murder charges — typically have gripes against the government and find no shortage of incentives to lie.
In 2017, the South Korean government upped its reward for North Korean defectors with juice on DPRK state secrets to $860,000. Meanwhile, defectors are paid a generous hourly wage to share their horror stories with human-rights workers and the media.
“Cash payments in return for interviews with North Korean refugees have been standard practice in the field for years,” writes Jiyoung Song, who has been interviewing North Koreans as a human-rights researcher since 1999. He continues:
A government official from the South Korean ministry of unification told me the range of fees could vary wildly, from $50 to $500 per hour, depending on the quality of information.
But this practice raises a difficulty: how does the payment change the relation between a researcher and an interviewee, and what effect will it have on the story itself?
This practice also drives the demand for ‘saleable stories:’ the more exclusive, shocking or emotional, the higher the fee.”
In other words, there is an entire industry that incentivizes the creation of fake news about North Korea with cash rewards that would make even a journalist living in America begin to salivate like a pack of 120 starving dogs. The problem is that there is no incentive for journalists to actually get it right — in fact, it’s just the opposite because such explosive stories generate disproportional ad revenue through clicks.
But that’s all many of these news articles are: fairytales of zombies and unicorns.
Correction | A previous version of this story incorrectly named Kim Hyok-chol as the North Korean envoy to the United States allegedly sent to a labor camp, but Kim Yong Chol is the North Korean envoy to the United States. Hyok-chol was reported to have been executed, a claim which later turned out to be false. We regret this error.
Feature photo | The Arirang in Pyongyang, North Korea. Stephen | Flickr
Alexander Rubinstein is a staff writer for MintPress News based in Washington, DC. He reports on police, prisons and protests in the United States and the United States’ policing of the world. He previously reported for RT and Sputnik News.