14.02.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

News from the Country of Doom and Gloom

345345345Usually, when talking about hoaxes fabricated about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, we have to deal with the products of either the Japanese mass media or the South Korean The Chosun Ilbo, but it turns out that a nonprofit broadcaster, Radio Free Asia, which also serves as a source of Internet news, makes a noticeable contribution to the demonization of this country as well. RFA was created in the USA and funded partly from the federal budget, and partly by US civil organizations as well as by the citizen sector, including the Korean Culture and Freedom Foundation, a branch of the notorious Unification Church founded by Sun Myung Moon.

Here are some examples of news that they “gleefully reported” traditionally based on the feedback from some “anonymous sources familiar with the situation.” First, in December 2015, they broadcast a sensation that an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un had apparently been planned back in fall. Allegedly, prior to his visit to the new Wonsan Kalma Airport, security services had discovered about 100 dynamite sticks, normally used for carving tunnels through mountains, in one of the airport’s floor slabs. According to the radio station, the airport was closed down after the incident and investigation was underway. But even in South Korea this “sensation” was perceived with skepticism. Joo Ho Young, Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, noted that South Korean secret services had no information confirming either the shutting down of the airport, or the assassination attempt, besides videos of the airport in operation were available on the Internet.

Earlier, in September 2015, Free Asia reported (and, as per tradition, relying on its own sources) that Kim Jong-un had decided to deter North Korean officials from copying his looks by forbidding the tailoring of suits in the same style as his and getting the same “Dear Leader” style haircuts. Allegedly, if back then Kim Jong-il, whose style officials of that time also copied (which, by the way, is another lie, as the style of the jacket he wore was never popular with everybody) did not care much about the imitation, then today’s leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seemingly got tired of that trend and “regional officials were instructed to not dress in the outfits similar to those worn by Kim Jong-un and to stop mirroring his behavior,” in the wake of which, “hoards of state employees rushed to their tailors to cancel their orders.” Whom did this info come from? Well, you guessed it! An “unidentified source.”

What’s particularly interesting, is that other hoax generators insist that everything was quite the opposite: everyone in North Korea was ordered to get the “Dear Leader” style haircuts. However, these days such “news” can be easily verified with the help of Internet: plenty of pictures from North Korea are posted there (and bloggers can browse, for example, through the selections posted on to see for themselves that The Chosun Ilbo has stayed faithful to its style when spreading yet another “trustworthy piece of news.”

Finally, on January 11, Radio Free Asia heralded that authorities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea introduced a ban forbidding Chinese national clothes and accessories and that special patrol squads were overseeing the observation of the ban in the country. And that schoolchildren dressed in Chinese national clothes were sent home to change them. According to The Chosun Ilbo, the ban was allegedly introduced to support domestic producers, on the one hand, and because of deterioration of relations with China, on the other. This time (unlike the previous times) the Republic of Korea’s mass media broadcast this news, but as the on-site studies conducted by Russians living and working in North Korea showed, it turned out to be yet another fabrication.

Of course, this list of “sensations” for the period is not exhaustive. For example, South Korean mass media, referring to an anonymous source “with profound knowledge of the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” “delivered” Kim Jong-un a Mercedes that had supposedly been secretly produced in Germany to a special order and was intended for the transportation of the country’s top officials. According to the source, the order had been placed by a certain Chinese trading company located in the border zone, but “we, of course, know” who the cargo was really meant for (as if there are no potential buyers for such cars in modern China).

Commenting on this story, South Korean TV channel YTN reported that not only is Kim Jong-un a big fan of this car make, but that he also enjoys driving through Pyongyang at night all by himself, not escorted by guards. Other version of this rumor insists that it was not a Mercedes, but a Bugatti, and that it is not the North Korean leader, but his older brother Kim Jong-chul (out of whom demonizers have been trying to mold (at various times) a chief Pyongyang playboy, a secret transvestite, a leader of pro-American group, a power broker, and the leader of the “bad guys” from politics), who usually sits in the driver’s seat during these late night cruises. Well, clearly, when information cannot be verified, the imagination can really run wild.

There were no new executions with use of artillery and flamethrowers, though, according to the Yonhap News Agency, Vice Premier, Choe Yong-gon, was executed back in May, allegedly after expressing his discontent with the young leader’s forestation policy. Readers should be reminded, though, that the disappearance of an official from the inner circle of a leader does not necessarily mean that the person was persecuted, and that even those who fall out of favor may make a comeback.

Here is a good example. On October 8, the director of the Designing Department of the National Defense Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, General Ma Won-chun, appeared again among the officials accompanying Kim Jong-un. General Ma was believed to be purged for refusing to build a chocolate fountain at the new airport in the capital, or at least this is what South Korean mass media was reporting. The news about his execution was also broadcast by sources believed to be more or less pro-North-Korean, which even persuaded the author of this article that General Ma had been sentenced to death for corruption.

And now a few stories, which, were we to switch the incident sites to North Korea, would perfectly correspond to the image of the Country of Doom and Gloom, though the countries where these stories really happened do not fall under the category of “evil” according to the western classification. Let’s start with the “insult of His Majesty.” This is a case of a citizen of Thailand, who was accused of posting “sarcastic” messages about the King’s dog on social media. The case is now under revision in the Thai military tribunal. The defendant is facing up to 37 years in prison on charges of “sedition and insulting the king”. We shall remind the readers that the respective Thai law extends to the members of the ruling family, portraits of monarchs (including those depicted on bills), the history of the dynasty and, as it turned out, even to the pets of the royal family. However, the standard reaction to such laws is “it is their national tradition, and we have to respect it.”

Here is another example. Saudi Arabia is a country where they execute more people than they ever do in North Korea. A lawyer is often regarded there an unnecessary luxury, and the law even allows the execution of the mentally sick and minors.

Extramarital sexual relations or even the suspicion of having them, atheism or apostasy (conversion from Islam to another religion), homosexuality, sorcery, gambling are the crimes for which a person can be sentenced to a thousand lashes, ten years in prison or beheading. And, despite a certain level of outrage from the global community at these laws, Riyadh is not planning on making its legal system more humane.

Finally, there is the recent story from South Korea, where in compliance with the Act on Promotion of Information and Communication Network Utilization and Information Protection, a Seoul court sentenced the Chair of the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group that carried out investigation of sinking of the ROKS Cheonan to two years of imprisonment with a two-year probation. (We have already covered his dissenting opinion in a respective article dedicated to the story of the corvette). Shin Sang-cheol was accused of the “intentional kindling of public distrust in the investigation,” which was expressed in his stating his opinion about the cause of the ship’s sinking after the inspection of damages was completed. His view happened to differ from the common opinion of the rest of the members of the Investigation Group, who supported the highly controversial “North Korean” version.

Shin Sang-cheol’s trial continued for 5.5 years; 34 articles he had written at various times and on different resources were scrutinized and a conclusion was made that 32 of 34 of his articles did not contain slander. What the expert is facing a sentence for is making non-confirmed statements accusing the government and navy of deliberate procrastination with the search for the survivors and the Minister of Defense of South Korea of concealing and fabricating evidence. The court, however, had to admit that “the members of the military monopolized information and, by providing inaccurate information in the initial answer to the question about the cause of the accident, could have given rise to such assertions.” But most importantly, Shin’s assertion that the corvette’s sinking was NOT caused by the actions of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has never been repudiated.

What one should bear in mind when analyzing other similar “heartbreaking stories” about North Korea, though, is that the sources of information should never be scrutinized, neither should the reported “horrors” be compared to the practices of other countries…

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (History), Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”