In the run-up to the VII Congress of the Workers’ Party of North Korea, the number of sensation news items about North Korea begins to predictably increase. Thus, on May 2 almost all central Russian media spread the news that, funerals and weddings had been banned during and in the run-up to the congress in North Korea, and if that wasn’t enough, so had “any gatherings of more than three.”
Here is a typical news example:
North Korean authorities banned citizens from holding celebrations such as weddings and funerals, before the congress of the ruling Workers’ Party of North Korea, which will open on May 6 for the first time in more than 30 years, The South Korean news agency Yonhap reported, citing a source familiar with North Korean affairs. In addition, North Korean authorities have decided to restrict entry to the DPRK capital Pyongyang to those who refuse to undergo identification. The source added that the North Korean authorities have also introduced harsher penalties for those who refuse to comply with the requirements of the police during the “period of heightened control.”
Other news agencies explained that “citizens were forbidden to hold important ceremonial events such as weddings and funerals, which require the participation of large numbers of people,” and that the DPRK authorities are thus trying to prevent any incidents that may overshadow the forthcoming celebrations and negatively affect the country’s image.
As per usual, we will commence the analysis of this sensation by questioning the sources. This time it wasn’t Chosun Ilbo or some other human rights organization behind the information, but the government Yonhap News Agency, whose report of April 29 2016 was retold with some accuracy.
But what sources do the South Korean journalists themselves refer to? Oh, it was “a source familiar with North Korea, who declined to be identified.” According to this undisclosed informant, all the measures listed earlier were taken in order to induce an aura of fear in the nation and prevent an exodus of citizens from the country, as well as allowing security agencies to stay afloat on the influx of bribes, resulting from the crackdown’s ripple effect. And if the data on the DPRK clamping down is confirmed not only by anonymous sources, but others, including the Speaker of the RK Ministry of Unification, Jeong Jeong Bae, the prohibited weddings remain on the conscience of the so-called “mysterious stranger.”
In fact, the analysis of this wild goose chase could end here, but the author would like to raise a quite important ethical issue associated with the point that the essence of the sensational news is based on the testimony of a de facto anonymous source. Sure, at times, an expert of high repute might decline having his name published under the given information and request that he be left unmentioned. However, an equally common occurrence is that in the course of an interview, the expert shares some key details with the journalist but makes it clear that the information is not to be published and is, for the most part, given to provide the journalist with a deeper understanding of the overall situation.
Furthermore, in political analysis, there is a format, called Chatham House Rules, which stipulates that an expert has the right to refrain from naming his information sources. However, this format presupposes a “gentlemen’s club”, where the competence and reputation of the expert goes without saying, and no one would resort to make-believe stories.
American courses where future press attaches learn to communicate with the press, do not propose the use of anonymous references as a central source. The phrase “experts (no names implied) believe that …” may be something of a side dish to the main entrée, but not the leading source of news. Otherwise, the average reader will always wrestle with the question: where is the guarantee that this source was not coined by a journalist or the data altered by an overzealous writer, flourishing the words of the expert with his own ideas?
The latter option is very likely in this instance. The tighter passport control and strengthening of borders, in the context of such significant events are permissible; but a ban on weddings and funerals slips into the realm of propagandistic fantasy that portrays North Korea as a country of gloom and doom, yet these assertions cannot be verified. After all, this is not even reported by a defector, but simply a “well-informed official” without even a reference to the agency to which he belongs. There is no indication as to where he got this information.
In this light, it seems odd that our expert refuses to reveal himself. This may happen with regard to information that is deemed sensitive for national security which the expert is closely connected to, and thus when leaking something important, there is an attempt to avoid incurring responsibility. But this is theoretically a totally different situation. There is nothing sensitive or top-secret in the news of the weddings. Unless, of course, the expert who dumped this brazen nonsense on the media decided to protect himself from any repercussions?
What’s more, in terms of South Korea, similar “anonymous experts, well-informed on the issue” serve to remind us of another unpleasant element of the recent past. In the fifties, during the reign of President Syngman Rhee, where the number of state terror victims in the South was double the number of victims of repression in the North, the leading role of the opposition in most of the proceedings was played by so-called “secret witnesses for the prosecution.” “For security reasons” these people did not appear in court, could not be subject to questioning by lawyers and their names were never mentioned since. However, the court did not dare to question their testimonies. Similar secret witnesses were to be found, by the way, in the preparation of the sensational report on human rights in North Korea, which was the subject of a number of critical materials from the author.
Let’s sum things up. The Yonhap agency itself is a valid source, however, in this case, it refers to information that cannot be verified. It is impossible to even confirm or deny the existence of the authority, who supplied the journalist with this sensational news. An objective interpretation of the news indicates that, while such a sensation will not be confirmed by collaborated sources, these mentions of illegal weddings and funerals should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D., Senior Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.