When it comes to North Korea, it’s easy to conflate the real with the surreal. In this terrain, truth is scarce. Truth is ambiguous. Truth often does not matter.
On Aug. 29, 2013, the conservative South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo carried a striking story about Kim Jong Un and a woman he had purportedly had an affair with. Her name was Hyon Song-wol. She was a singer. And Kim had executed her.
The story, hinging on unnamed “sources in China,” claimed Hyon was killed because she and other well-known musicians had sold pornography of themselves having sex. They were also purportedly caught with “Bibles in their possession” and “treated as political dissidents.”
Sex. Murder. Suppression of Christianity. North Korea.
This story had legs.
That same day, the Wire, the Huffington Post, and the Telegraph pumped out aggregations beside images of an exultant Kim Jong Un and a demure Korean woman. The feeding frenzy had a half-life of several days, hitting its apogee when the Daily Dot uploaded a video of “three Korean women in leotards dancing along to tinny Western music.” The online publication mulled whether that video was indeed the alleged pornography that got Hyon axed.
Last weekend, however, Kim Jong Un’s now-executed porn star former lover rose from the dead to give a speech — in uniform, sans leotard — at a national artists’ meeting.
Most of the stories reported are ridiculous on their face, which is in part their appeal. Western reports, albeit laced with incredulity, have alleged that Kim Jong Il sank five holes-in-one on his first outing playing golf. That Kim Jong Un fed his uncle to hundreds of starving dogs. And that North Korean scientists discovered evidence that unicorns exist. The last example hints at the reason the stories are mass-produced: Time scored about 27,000 Facebook likes with its unicorn story. The Telegraph got about 57,000 likes with its coverage of the singing porn star execution. Insane stories bring in insane page-views, and no country churns out more insane stories than North Korea.
But what if it’s calculated insanity? What if the misinformation is a subtle form of warfare South Korea is waging on the North? What if it’s a clever North Korean ploy to convince Western powers this nuclear-armed nation is not only crazy, but takes pleasure in killing? So maybe the latest Hyon video is a fake — just like the original story that she was executed.
Every scenario could be true. None of them could be true. Such is the difficulty in writing about the most isolated country in the world. But the tale of the murdered porn star is nonetheless worth examining because it shows how an apparently fake North Korea viral story is born — and the questions you need to ask yourself before you’re duped again.
What’s the original source?
Many of these stories take their first wobbly steps in the South Korean press, specifically Chosun Ilbo. It’s a conservative publication with an adversarial relationship with North Korea that has no problem publishing thinly sourced stories that may or may not be true.
North Korea has threatened to destroy Chosun Ilbo on several occasions. In April 2013, the country seethed it would “burn [it] to the ground.” Then in July, it called it a “reptile newspaper. … This is nothing but poor trumpeting which can be made only by base and wicked hack journalists who prolong their remaining days through anti-DPRK smear campaign after being reduced to waiting maids for those in power.”
Complicating matters: South Korean officials often don’t go on-the-record, making verification even more difficult.
How salacious is the report?
“Three million deaths is a statistic, but a dead porn star is a headline,” longtime North Korean analyst Joshua Stanton of One Free Korea said in an e-mail. “There are some horrible and lurid stories coming out of North Korea that affect many more North Korean lives, and that go under-reported because they don’t have the appeal of sex or sadism.”
Poverty and famine, while obviously more important, he said, lack the social media impact of Kim Jong Un executing an official with a flamethrower. (Maybe that didn’t happen either.)
Has it gone too long without verification?
At the time of her ostensible execution, there were reports that Kim Jong Un’s girlfriend’s pornography was circulating in Chinese markets. But despite the international appeal of the story, the tapes never surfaced — even though media (especially Gawker) would have gladly published such news. “If those reports were true,” Stanton said, “rest assured that those videos would be all over the Internet by now.”
Is this a lost-in-translation moment?
When Time’s Patrick Boehler ran with a story about North Korean scientists discovering evidence of unicorns, it struck several North Korea observers as a bit of a stretch, and was based on a North Korean press release. NKnews.org was doubtful.
“The actual KCNA article in English is poorly written, but only the least generous interpretation possible would say it claimed that unicorns existed. … The original Korean article more obviously states that these were fantastical creatures that were part of legend. But what is more likely? A poorly translated, contextless article? Or that North Korea is claiming unicorns were historical fact?”
Then again, the story may be true.
In 1986, news broke that North Korea had kidnapped a famous South Korea director to make a Godzilla movie. This one was actually spot on. Kim Jong Il was even recorded plotting out the film’s direction.
And if there was ever a time to hope an outlandish North Korean story was legitimate, it’s this morning. North Korea announced it’s planning an international pro-wrestling match for late August for a cadre of “world renowned pro-wrestlers.” Few details, the Associated Press reported, were provided.