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.

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.

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