How did Kim Jong-Un return from a grave?
Kim Jong-Un, the strongman of North Korea, returned from a grave. Since he was absent at the event held for the 108th birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung--the founding leader of North Korea, and disappeared from the public for 3 weeks, rumors surrounding his status had been growing fast and furious all around South Korea, Japan, and the US, and eventually, he was almost considered dead by some specialists and politicians in South Korea. Fortunately(?), however, all the rumors and misinformation are silenced at once as the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported his appearance on May 1, 2020.
This incident reveals the capability of North Korea concealing information regarding their supreme leader. Moreover, it raises concerns about how misinformation can be easily developed and generate 'infodemic.' In this blog post, I walk through the development of misinformation surrounding Kim's status.
Where is he? He is gone!
Kim Jong Un last appeared in public at the meeting of North Korea's ruling party Politburo on April 11. Then he did not appear at one of the major events in North Korea, which is the birthday of the founding father and Kim's grandfather, Kim Il Sung. He had not missed this event since he became a supreme leader in 2012.
Although this looks odds and may have enough reasons to raise some doubts about his status, it may not be that much serious given his father, and the son of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, only attended this event three times during his leadership. This is why the ministry of Unification in South Korea kept arguing Kim Jong Un's absence was not unusual.
The beginning of misinformation
All the rumor began to emerge when the Seoul-based Daily NK, a media outlet specializing in North Korea issues, reported on April 20 that the North Korean leader was receiving medical treatment following a cardiovascular procedure. CNN backed this news by reporting that US intel said Kim was in "grave danger" after surgery. Initially, CNN confronted huge criticism from scholars and specialists of North Korea who claimed CNN was providing misinformation which was solely based on the unknown source. Although CNN eventually removed its initial report, it was enough to ignite the fire of misinformation.
Since the first report from Daily NK and CNN, a lot of reports came from South Korean media outlets. The graph below shows how much news about Kim Jong Un has been reported in South Korea since April 1. I generated this graph using a text analysis tool provided by BIG KINDS. As seen, news regarding the North Korean leader began to receive significant attention after April 21. Especially the day in which CNN raised an issue about Kim's health, more than 550 news articles were generated in a single day.
Considering the fact that the profits of private media depend on how many people read their articles, it makes sense that private media outlets focus on the status of the North Korean leader, which would be the most important and interesting issue in South Korea. The problem was, however, those reports from the media did not care whether the information was credible but care if that news is sensitive and intriguing enough to drag public attention.
In the beginning, there were only two publicly-known facts--- Kim missed one of the major political events and disappeared from the public for more than a week. Given Kim frequently disappeared for more than a week, it may not have been a big deal. However, as mentioned, Daily NK and CNN "sparked a storm of online speculation."
"He took surgery and can't walk !" or "He is self-quarantining!" or "He is just taking a break!" or "He is dead!" or ...
Because specific information regarding the North Korean leader is limited, reports about Kim heavily relied their source on the so-called "North Korean intel" or North Korean defectors. The problem was that no one including the North Korean intel actually knows what happened to Kim precisely. Thus, they simply based their arguments on a hunch.
The most popular speculation was revolving around Kim's health. For example, Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who was recently elected to South Korea's national assembly (parliament), told CNN on April 27 that "he (Kim) cannot stand up by himself or walk properly." Although he claimed all rumors surrounding Kim's condition was not "really based on the facts," his speculation that "he will not walk properly" was also not based on any fact but his hunch. The word cloud below, generated from South Korean media reports for April 21-May 2, shows that recent news regarding Kim Jong Un heavily focused on the speculation of his health (The biggest word "건강 이상설," which is colored blue, means the health rumors.)
These arguments seemed to be supported by the further revealed fact that his train was stationed in Wonsan where a medical complex was located. Also, it was revealed that China sent a team of medical experts to North Korea. Later South Korean government and the US announced it seemed Kim Jong Un currently stayed in Wonsan. Also, the fact that the US increased the number of surveillance aircrafts flying over South Korea to monitor North Korea raised concerns in South Korea.
Major conservative media outlets in South Korea, such as Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo, and Donga Ilbo, had enjoyed the vacuum of precise information and simply jumped on the bandwagon, reporting all extreme scenarios.
Yet just because Kim did not stay in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, does not necessarily mean he was in danger or took surgery or couldn't walk or he was actually dead. Actually, there were a lot of different versions of speculations surrounding Kim's status. For example, some said Kim might have stayed in Wonsan to self-quarantine because there was a close elite who had a fever or tested positive for COVID-19. Others said he did not have any issue and simply took a rest in Wonsan. Like other speculations, such versions were also based on unknown North Korean sources and a personal hunch.
Despite many possibilities, South Korean media competitively paid attention, without rigorous investigation, to extreme scenarios including Kim's death. For example, Ji Seong Ho, another North Korean defector who recently became a lawmaker, claimed that he is 99% assured that Kim Jong Un is dead and North Korea will announce his death in a few days. Albeit he did not reveal where the information came from, major media outlets rushed into reporting his claim to drag public attention.
Media writing a novel: Who will be the next leader?
All those speculations and misinformation about Kim's health culminated in the next level of speculation: who will be the next leader of North Korea? Journalists had begun to interview all possible sources spanning from North Korean defectors to professors. They began paying attention to Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un's sister. Despite nothing had happened, news reports already considered Kim's death as guaranteed and calculated the possibility of whether a woman could become a dictator in North Korea. Some said she was too young to weather challenges from old elites while others said she might have been more prepared than we thought. South Korean media, especially conservative media, went back to every single member of Kim's and examined who could take his job. Remember, nothing about Kim's status had been confirmed. And yet, the media just enjoyed the vacuum of precise information. They did not report a fact, but rather wrote a novel.
South Korea fighting against the rumor
Public attention to North Korea went in the wrong direction due to the deluge of misinformation and the absence of a response from North Korea. People in South Korea concerned about what would happen if Kim died or the North Korean regime collapsed. Since Kim Jong Un did not prepare his successor as if his grandfather and father did, political turmoil and regime instability seemed inevitable. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, it seemed another major political crisis may have affected the South Korean economy considerably.
As public concerns growing considerably, the South Korean government intervened and attempted to relieve tensions. The government claimed that nothing unusual activity in North Korea was reported and Kim seemed to keep his grip on power. How funny it is. It looked like the South Korean government represented North Korea.
And He is back
Kim Jong un reappears in public view on May 1, after three weeks of rumors and misinformation. He attended, with a smile on his face, a ceremony at a factory in the city of Sunchon. North Korean state media released pictures of him later and it seems he CAN walk. The pictures of him silenced all rumors regarding his health conditions at once.
The rise of rumors and misinformation surrounding Kim Jong Un can be attributable to one simple fact: Information about North Korea, especially its leader, is highly concealed. Even the US or South Korean government cannot be certain about what happens to the North Korean leader until the state media report. This is surprising and somewhat daunting given the fact that we are living in the world of global-scale surveillance. Moreover, we need to pay attention to the fact that the vacuum of precise information incentivized private media who sought public attention to pursue any intriguing stories irrespective of whether they are true.