Kim Jong Un is (apparently) alive and (presumably) well. The North Korean dictator appeared in a state-issued photo over the weekend, in which he is shown cutting the ribbon on a new fertilizer factory outside Pyongyang. He looked not the least bit dead.
This development was a bit awkward for CNN and many other news outlets around the world, as well as a few intelligence agencies, which had spent the past few weeks in a frenzy over Kim’s health, or lack thereof.
According to stories in otherwise reliable mainstream publications, Kim died. According to journalists, he was “in grave danger,” possibly as a result of a botched operation. Others split the difference, saying he was in a coma or brain dead.
Or, as it turns out, not.
Although it’s hard to know anything for sure about North Korea, the fertilizer-plant photo suggests the reporting about Kim over the past few weeks was a farrago of misinformation, non-information, half speculation and outright guessing.
The worldwide misreporting appears to have started with a South Korean website that has acknowledged that it mistranslated a single anonymous source’s account of Kim’s health.
The first story about Kim’s alleged health issues was published by the South Korea-based website Daily NK, which monitors news, gossip and rumors from North Korea. Daily NK’s story on April 20 said that Kim was recovering from an unspecified “cardiovascular procedure,” supposedly as a result of heavy smoking, obesity and fatigue, and that he reportedly was in stable condition.
But Robert Lauler, the English-language editor of Daily NK, said on Tuesday that the English rendering of “cardiovascular procedure” from the site’s story in Korean was inaccurately rendered as “heart surgery,” a far more serious phrasing and one that found its way into other news reports.
Daily NK has since corrected its original English-language story to say “cardiovascular procedure” instead, he said.
There was some superficial context for concern about Kim, even if the story was vague about what exactly his health was. It noted that Kim hadn’t been seen in public since April 11, and more important, had failed to show up for the annual ceremony on April 15 marking “The Day of the Sun,” the anniversary of the birthday of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding dictator, “eternal president” and Kim’s grandfather.
South Korean officials publicly downplayed and even disputed the Daily NK story. They said they had seen “no unusual activity” in Pyongyang — no irregular troop movements, no spike in communications, no public broadcasts of funereal music — that would suggest something was up with the 36-year-old Kim.
Nevertheless, an international game of telephone was on.
Daily NK’s sketchy reporting soon found firmer footing in the west via CNN, which reported on April 21 that the United States was monitoring “intelligence” that Kim was in “grave danger” after undergoing surgery. The story cited several unnamed sources: a U.S. official “with direct knowledge,” a “second source familiar with the intelligence” and “another U.S. official.” The latter said the concerns about Kim’s health are credible “but the severity is hard to assess.”
A CNN spokesperson stood by the story and said the reporting in it was “straightforward.” The story’s lead author, CNN anchor Jim Sciutto, declined to comment. Then the story exploded. CNN’s article set off an international game of gossip, with news reports about Kim staking out every possibility.
Kim was dead, TMZ declared under a “breaking news” banner. (The celebrity news site hedged a bit, throwing a “reportedly” into the story and headline and allowing that Kim might merely be “on his death bed with no hope for recuperation.”) Kim was brain dead, MSNBC host Katy Tur asserted on Twitter, citing “two U.S. officials,” though she later deleted and apologized for the tweet. There were reports that Kim was in a coma. Or that one of Kim’s guards had shot him.
Soon, a semi satirical hashtag was trending on Twitter: #KIMJONGUNDEAD.
The uncertainty about Kim quickly leapfrogged to uncertainty about his successor. Supposedly, his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, was in line to succeed him, the Daily Beast speculated, although an opinions contributor for The Washington Post took issue with this.
Into this murky swamp waded President Trump, who offered . . . more uncertainty. Trump, who often touts his friendship with Kim and regularly calls American media organizations “fake news,” said during a briefing on April 23 that CNN’s report was “incorrect.” But he didn’t say how. And then he implied he had no idea: “I have a good relationship with Kim Jong Un, and I hope he’s okay.”
A few days later, Trump said he had a “very good idea” about Kim’s health, but “I can’t talk about it now.” And so the world waited to learn if a rogue, unpredictable, nuclear-armed state still had its hereditary leader or might be plunged into a power struggle. The question was answered on Saturday with North Korea’s release of a smiling Kim opening a fertilizer factory.
Experts on North Korea see this as a teachable moment for U.S. media. Among the takeaways:
● Don’t trust, verify. While it’s hard to know even in the best of times what’s going on inside North Korea, the rumors about Kim emerged in an even more challenging environment — when the country was even more tightly sealed off than usual because of the coronavirus. That should have put the media on even higher guard for misinformation, said Jean H. Lee, director of the Korea program at the Wilson Center in Washington and a former Pyongyang bureau chief for the Associated Press. South Korea’s news media isn’t always the most reliable source even under normal conditions, she said. “I never picked up a story [from South Korean news reports] until I checked and confirmed it on my own,” said Lee. “There is a long pattern of South Korean media reports being inaccurate. I was always strict about not spreading information that wasn’t verified.”
● The intelligence wasn’t all that intelligent, suggests Jung H. Pak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. It’s doubtful the story would have gotten traction, at least in the American media, if the unnamed “U.S. officials” relied upon by CNN and MSNBC hadn’t provided some support for it, she said. “Insight into Kim’s health . . . would be the toughest to get because of North Korea’s robust counterintelligence practices,” said Pak, a former CIA analyst who is the author of “Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Analyst Insights Into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator.” “It’s hard in general to get access to something as sensitive as a leader’s health, in North Korea or elsewhere.” Given how sensitive any such information would be, “it would be prudent” for Western intelligence services not to leak information like that in the first place.
● The president didn’t help, either, by appearing to give oxygen to the rumors. “The way Trump presents information rarely helps bring clarity or peace of mind to a situation,” said Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, and deputy director of 38 North, a website that analyzes North Korea.
She notes that it’s likely that Trump was briefed about Kim, though how much certainty there was in such a briefing is unknown. In any case, “questions about Kim Jong Un’s health should have been anticipated [by the president] and careful answers crafted for him to balance what he knew and what he could say in a way that instilled more confidence in the government’s ability to respond to the evolving situation,” Town said.
A note: As of April 30, two days before Kim re-emerged in public, Daily NK — the original source of the Kim rumors — had bumped up its assessment of his condition from ailing to dead. It acknowledged that this was only a rumor, too, of course.