x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Rabid media fuel rumours surrounding Kim's status

The reaction to rumours of the N Korea leader's death shows a conspicuous herd mentality in the region's press corps.

South Koreans watch a television news report about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at a railway station in Seoul.
South Koreans watch a television news report about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at a railway station in Seoul.

BEIJING // The wave, started by a Japanese press report on Saturday about an imminent announcement from North Korea, possibly about Kim Jong Il's alleged grave illness, became a tsunami in South Korea and around the world. On Sunday, a conservative South Korean group cited Chinese state CCTV and claimed that the North Korean leader had died at a hospital in a suburb of Pyongyang. "Kim's death is 100 per cent certain. North Korea is in a state of emergency," the group's website said. It credited a high-ranking Chinese official as saying so on Chinese TV. That "news" travelled via the internet in South Korea, one of the most wired countries in the world. Web forums and discussion boards were filled with comments, analysis and even an "insider's view" about what is happening in the world's most isolated country. Beijing, a favourite outpost for foreign media outlets to observe North Korea, remained calm. A well-placed source here dismissed the Japanese media report as "mistaken". The South Korean government downplayed the Japanese press report on Sunday, saying: "Nothing has been confirmed as a fact," Yonhap News Agency reported. "North Korean officials are visiting China as usual. All the scheduled events in North Korea are proceeding as usual. North Korea's overseas diplomatic compounds are operating normally too," the semi-government-owned Yonhap news agency said, quoting an intelligence official. The "news" about Kim Jong Il's death turned out to be false. Chinese state TV did not report it. North Korea did not close its border either, which it had done when Kim Il Sung, the late North Korean leader, died in 1994. By Sunday night, most South Korean news outlets withdrew the news from their internet editions. All in all, it was another tantalising yet familiar weekend in North Korean drama. And the drama, as has been seen lately, has a pattern: Mr Kim is either dead, retiring or sharing power. Maybe a successor will be named. Or, there is nothing to worry about. The media's reaction also shows a conspicuous herd mentality. Instead of calmly analysing and checking facts, they behave like a wild gunman who shoots while running. They report while still in the process of checking the facts. Though, given North Korea, often the fact is not checkable because of limited access to the Stalinist country. In fact, it is an open confession among foreign journalists who cover North Korea that much of the news about North Korea, including some that made world headlines, was speculative and eventually has turned out to be false. For example, Kim Il Sung, the current leader's father, "died" many times before he finally died. His son may have a few deaths in him as well. In the intelligence community, a place that does not allow access is called a "denied area". North Korea is the world's most denied area. Even some of the recent intelligence reports about Kim Jong Il are also retreating from "fact" to "yet to be confirmed". Observers said the Japanese press report, in which Pyongyang told its overseas diplomats to wait for an "important announcement", is a result of the Japanese media's overzealousness on North Korea, in an effort not to miss any small sign of "change". They believe it was likely to have generated and snowballed after North Korea's inspection of some of its foreign compounds. Others said it is possible the report reflects some right-leaning Japanese media's wishful thinking for change in North Korea. North Korea is always portrayed as an abnormal country, dangerously toying with nuclear weapons. Its leader is a favourite subject for character assassination by the international media for his nuclear delusion and as a dictator who starves its people. The world sees North Korea as a mad country. This time, watching all this media fever, North Korea may think the same about the outside world. On Sunday, another Japanese newspaper repeated the news that North Korea was to make an "important announcement" yesterday. A North Korean diplomat, responding to an anxious query for confirmation, tersely replied: "Why don't you get some rest?" * The National