Why I just got called out by North Korean state media

March 27, 2013

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korean state media has taken a break from photoshopping extra hovercrafts into its photos of military exercises to issue an official response to my recent post on reports that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea had ordered its diplomats to become drug dealers.

Before I go any further, let me offer a warm welcome to my readers in the North Korean state news services. You can bookmark our North Korea coverage here for easier access.

The Korean Central News Agency put out a commentary accusing the Washington Post, and me specifically, of aiding in a U.S. government plot to "tarnish" North Korea's sterling reputation. In very meta fashion, KCNA ran the story with a headline referencing itself in the third-person. Here's how it opens:

KCNA Commentary Blasts Story of "Drug Trafficking" by DPRK

Pyongyang, March 26 (KCNA) -- The American paper The Washington Post is misleading the public opinion by releasing the fictitious story of "drug trafficking" by the DPRK, pursuant to the government authorities' hostile policy toward it.

The newspaper on March 23 carried a false report that north Korea ordered its diplomats to become drug traffickers.

This is a groundless and absurd smear campaign against the DPRK.

Here's what I said in my post, which actually ran on March 22. (Sorry to nitpick, Pyongyang, but you did accuse me of lying.) A South Korean newspaper called Chosun Ilbo had reported that, according to defectors, North Korea had started sending its diplomats abroad with large amounts of drugs, which they were told to sell for hard currency to send back home. I wrote that there was "good reason to suspect" that the story "could be true"; North Korea has reportedly been producing high-quality meth for years, selling it in neighboring China to raise cash. The drugs have been wreaking havoc in neighboring Chinese provinces and, increasingly, in North Korea itself.

North Korean state media did not like my post. It has long attacked the "despicable reptile media" for "jabbering" and behaving, it says, as a mouthpiece for the "hostile" South Korean and U.S. governments. But, somewhat flatteringly, it seems to give the Post a little more credit. Here's another snip from KCNA's response:

The "defectors from the north" and Chosun Ilbo have been accustomed to making false reports about the DPRK. The gravity of the situation lies in that the Washington Post professing a famous newspaper echoed the false story.

So far, their argument seems to be that my story was false and that the Post should hold itself to a higher standard. I think they're probably wrong on the first point (more on this below), but they certainly have a right to respond, and I appreciate that they've couched their argument in the importance of media accuracy.

But, after that, things get a little wacky. Here are the very next paragraphs:

Lurking behind this is a politically calculated aim.

The newspaper seeks to work as a shock brigade in executing the U.S. administration's hostile policy toward the DPRK and thus tarnish the international image of the DPRK and justify the U.S. anti-DPRK policy that arouses international criticism.

In other words, they believe that I'm working in lock-step with the Obama administration's nefarious plot to make North Korea look bad, which perhaps gives both me and North Korea a bit more credit than either of us deserves.

As for their dispute with the accuracy of my post, it is true that it relies on a South Korean media outlet known for its nationalism (though not for lying), which itself relies on South Korean intelligence reports from defector statements. So, as I wrote at the time, North Korean diplomatic drug smuggling could stand to be more firmly established. And one North Korea-watcher I spoke to more recently speculated that the country might be pushing out drugs through non-diplomatic embassy staff, which would technically make the Chosun Ilbo story and my post false.

But there is strong circumstantial reason to suspect the story's truth: the practice would be line with Pygonyang's practice of using smuggling, meth production and other illicit activities to raise hard currency, sometimes through its foreign embassies. And its meth exports into China have been independently documented. So, selling meth through its foreign embassies would be "new" for North Korea only to the extent that it combines two already-present fund-raising strategies. And it turns out that even this might not be new.

After I published my post last week, a Korean-American who closely follows North Korean issues sent along a 2004 report from Turkey that North Korean diplomats had been arrested attempting to sell illicit drugs there. That story also quoted South Korean media reports that diplomatic drug smuggling had become routine for the North. So, if I got something wrong in my original post, it appears that I may have actually understated the history of Pyongyang's practice of enlisting its diplomats as drug dealers.

So why did North Korea bother coming after me for my post? Here's a possible hint: the KCNA commentary transitions pretty quickly from accusing the Post of lying to accusing it of colluding with the U.S. government to arguing that this serves as proof of America's hostile intent and thus justification for its nuclear weapons program. Here's how they end:

The U.S. acts of stepping up confrontation with the DPRK while raising trifling matters will force the latter to increase the level of its stand-off with the U.S.

The situation in which the U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK has become all the more pronounced proves once again that the only option for the DPRK to defend itself is to bolster the nuclear deterrence, a treasured sword of Songun.

Translation: the Post covered long-running reports that North Korea is using its diplomats as drug dealers, therefore North Korea needs more nuclear weapons. I'm not sure I see their case but, as a member of the lackey reptile media shock brigade, I don't suppose I would.

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Max Fisher · March 27, 2013