Our readers may remember the remarkable canard relating to the rumor that in August 2013 the North Korean authorities arranged for the public execution by firing squad of about a dozen people found guilty of producing and distributing pornography. Among those executed was an ex-girlfriend of DPRK leader Kim Jong Un.
According to unnamed sources, Hyon Song Wol, the vocalist for the popular Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, was arrested on 17 August, 2013. About a dozen members of the Unhasu Orchestra and musicians and dancers from the Wangjaesan Light Music Band were arrested together with her.
The arrested persons, according to the media, were accused of appearing in pornographic materials and distributing them in, among other places, the People’s Republic of China. In addition, copies of the Bible, strictly prohibited in the DPRK, were found in the possession of some of those arrested, as a result of which the accused were treated like political dissidents.
Three days later, Hyon Song Wol and Mun Kyong Jin, head of the Unhasu Orchestra, were sentenced to be shot. The sentence to death by shooting was carried out on 20 August in the presence of other members of the musical ensembles mentioned above, which were naturally disbanded. The families of those arrested were sent to prisons and camps for political prisoners.
That was how the typical news item on the subject related these events, regardless of the fact that impartial experts immediately suspected something was amiss. The source of the information was the newspaper Chosun Ilbo (literally “Korea Daily”), popular in South Korea; though not yellow journalism, the paper takes a firm anti-DPRK position and has repeatedly served as the source of false stories of a similar nature. It relied for its story on “anonymous sources in China,” which could, judging from how information on this topic appears to have been gathered, indicate anything from the broken telephone effect to outright lies concocted out of thin air by propagandists with lots of time on their hands. In this particular case, the execution was also described in such detail that the question immediately arose as to how the anonymous source could have access to such concrete details. The source would have had to be present at the execution, which was not, in fact, public. The combined assertions that those executed had been in a porno movie and, on the other hand, that they belonged to an underground Christian church, also gave rise to astonishment.
Nonetheless, challenges to the story’s veracity were greeted with criticism from those accustomed to depicting the DPRK as an Evil Empire where all things are possible. If the singer was not appearing in concert, and the DPRK had not yet offered a refutation of these facts, why not believe that she had been shot? Let us see her on live TV—then we’ll talk!
These suspicions grew stronger when a European North Korea specialist with strong ties to the North (but not an official spokesperson) announced that the singer would appear in the very near future, but this did not take place. In October 2013 the singer’s death was confirmed as fact by the head of the Republic of Korea’s National Intelligence Service, Nam Jae Joon, who in closed parliamentary hearings announced that “We have learned of the execution of roughly ten people connected to the ensemble.” Two members of parliament informed the Yonhap news agency about this statement.
Then for a while a video surfaced around the net, made in a 1960s style and labeled to indicate that this was the very clip for which the unfortunate ensemble had been repressed. It was revealed almost immediately that the video was several years old, and that it could not have been the reason for the repressive action, but those who wanted to believe it kept believing.
The Japanese media subsequently provided further news: the Asahi Shimbun announced that the purge was connected with the fact that the girls who were shot had extensive inside knowledge about the lifestyle of Lee Seol Ju, the wife of Kim Jong Un, also a figure in the culture industry. The yellow press liked this version, and since then it was Lee who was “designated responsible” for the extermination of her rival. Thus this myth was decisively formed and took its place among other canards illustrating the vile nature of comrade Kim Jong Un.
To begin with, there was the story about Jang Song Thaek being eaten alive by dogs, when a Chinese blogger’s joke was transformed into a “report in a government newspaper” which was then circulated throughout the whole world. Next, the news about the entire male population of North Korea being required to get the same haircut as Kim Jong Un, although even the anonymous sources of the South Korean anticommunist press reported only that “oral instructions were given at some universities.” Finally, more nameless sources in China reported to the same Chosun Ilbo that Kim Jong Un had incinerated the Deputy Public Security Minister with a flame thrower.
And everything would have been fine if Hyon Song Wol, newly popular thanks to the canard, had not appeared on live television on 16 May 2014 as a participant in the Ninth Congress of Artistic Workers. Dressed in a military uniform, she delivered a speech in which she thanked Kim Jong Un for his leadership in cultural affairs and promised to be even more productive, to work harder and produce better work for the good of the people, the fatherland and the party. The singer’s speech was broadcast on television. Those who wish to do so can watch the short video in which she appears and be convinced of the fact that it was a live broadcast, not an earlier recording.
Thus the pathetic story of the “execution of an orchestra by firing squad” has been definitively shown to be a canard. If there was anything to the story, the actual events unquestionably differ greatly from the picture that was slapped together by the Republic of Korea’s propagandists. It is possible that Hyon was for some reason given a tonguelashing and, in the best North Korean tradition, “demoted to combine operator,” while the dynamic of distorted rumors transformed her temporary absence into her death and dreamed up additional details in broken telephone fashion. It is possible that the Chosun Ilbo based its report on rumors, or invented the whole story, riding on the quantity rather than quality of its fabrications. It no longer matters. What matters is that we see an example of a decisively discredited canard, when the person who was “shot long ago” suddenly turns up alive.
To the credit of both the Russian and Western press, the news of Hyon’s resurrection has circulated quite widely, though with less noise than accompanied the news of her execution. Sure, of course she came back to life. See, that’s how hermetically sealed North Korea is.
Of course, it is worth remembering that the DPRK regime is far from ideal, and that some news about the DPRK in the Chosun Ilbo even turns out to be true. But the DPRK remains in the target sights of hostile propaganda; the mass audience loves horrors and sensations, and sometimes quantity trumps quality. So, as in the case of the Chinese internet satirist’s throwaway line that became a “report in a government newspaper”, let this story serve our audience as a lesson and a warning against being gullible to propaganda and making hasty judgments based thereupon.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD, Senior Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.