North Korea is constantly in the press. Not only that, is it constantly the centre of negative press too. Due to the profound differences between North Korea and the rest of the world, combined with the secretive nature of the country, reporting on the subject has often been notoriously unreliable. Bar a couple of specialized news agencies (such as NKNews), this pattern has been a blanket rule, even in news sources that are known for quality and accurate reporting. Hysterical, unverifiable and inaccurate studies about North Korea are abundant, the public tend to believe them. To help defeat this trend, today, we’re going to give you five examples of well known false stories about North Korea that went viral in the Western media.
1) “North Korea claimed they won the world cup in 2014”
After the world cup finished in 2014, a viral story swept the internet claiming that North Korea told their citizens they had won the world cup, despite not even having qualified for the competition. The bogus story was unquestionably presented as fact many British tabloid papers, including the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express. In reality, football is not subject to censorship in North Korea. When I arrived to the country for the first time just the week after Germany won the cup, a North Korean soldier asked me why England had performed so poorly. Additionally, other locals expressed strong knowledge of the English Premier League, its teams and its players.
2) People who were executed who weren’t
The media is obsessed with speculating that notable figures in North Korea have been executed, despite insufficient evidence to even prove their claims. Often if an individual vanishes from the spotlight for a given period of time, some poorer quality media sources like to assume they were killed, then only for that person to reappear alive later. A good example of this is the North Korean singer Hyon Song-Wol, lead musician in the Moranbong band. After she disappeared from the public eye for a while, even sources as reputable as the BBC added fuel to speculation if she had been executed or not. Of course, we all know she’s alive, she toured South Korea just last week…
3) “Jang Sung-Taek was fed to dogs”
Someone who certainly was executed was Jang Sung-Taek, but even then the media managed to get carried away with exaggerating the details. A Chinese satirist wrote a blog article claiming that Kim’s uncle had not only been executed, but he had been fed to a pack of hungry dogs. The blog was picked up as fact by the South Korean media and repeated without question by the Western media, whom believed it was an official Chinese source. Only after the story had gone viral did the media then realize the story wasn’t true.
4) “People get executed by anti-aircraft guns”
A common story repeated by the Western media is that North Korea executes people by using anti-aircraft guns. This is not just one story, but a persistent theme of the endlessly exaggerated and unverifiable execution stories. Again, there is no empirical proof for all of this, with many papers simply citing South Korea’s “spy agency”, (hardly any impartial source). The spy agency has even admitted itself it is unsure if these stories are true. Simultaneously, even accounts from North Korean defectors have never claimed this. Yet, like with all stories concerning North Korea, consideration for the facts go out of the window.
5) “The 2010 World Cup Team Was sent to a camp”
North Korea’s 2010 world cup campaign resulted in them crashing out during the group stages. A notable moment of their run in the competition was their crushing 7-1 defeat to Portugal. After their exit, the Western media claimed that the North Korean team and coach were subject to severe punishment and were “sent to prison camps” for their performance. This dubious story, again emerging from an unspecified “South Korean intelligence source”, was parroted through right-wing establishment news agency “Choson ilbo” and went straight into the Western press. Likewise again, even reputable sources such as the Guardian ran the story uncritically. The reality however, is very different. In North Korea, athletes are in fact honoured as heroes and given special privileges for their service to the nation. If you have competed for North Korea in a major sporting competition such as the Olympics or the World Cup, you’d likely be given a reasonable apartment in Pyongyang for your efforts.
Conclusions? Don’t trust everything you read about North Korea!
The Western media are notoriously unreliable and of a poor quality when it comes to reporting on North Korea. These five stories represented above are just a selection of many hysterical, exaggerated or unverified claims repeated by journalists. There are a number of reasons for this, namely, the political agenda behind many South Korean “sources” are not questioned (despite the obvious element of war propaganda involved). Secondly, the secrecy of North Korea makes it impossible to obtain accurate or first hand information. Thirdly, inset ideological differences and political biases make extreme stories tempting to believe, which also has the consequence of them making very good clickbait in an online journalism driven world. The results of this have enormous ramifications for the assessment of North Korea in Western societies. Such nonsensical stories caricature the regime, intensify negative perceptions beyond the actual realities and of course draw attention away from the real issues. So when it comes to North Korea, make sure you question the source. If it is a story in a British tabloid paper, don’t even bother reading it.