North Korea, a master of information manipulation and confusion
'There is a market for outlandish stories about the North,' says security expert
Late last month, one of North Korea's top generals was paraded before hundreds of soldiers at a military academy outside Pyongyang and executed with a weapon capable of blowing a plane out of the sky.
At least, that's the story relayed to South Korean politicians by the country's National Intelligence Service. While it seems sensational and has not been independently confirmed, there's evidence similar executions have happened before.
Satellite images taken in October 2014 show six anti-aircraft batteries set up at a small-arms range near the same military facility. What appears to be a line of soldiers stands behind the guns while several unidentified objects — possibly human targets — sit about 30 metres from the gun barrels.
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While the satellite did not capture the guns firing, there are reports of execution by anti-aircraft fire dating back to 2013. The pictures were the first visual evidence of this killing method.
The apparent death of the defence chief, Hyon Yong-Chol, is the latest in a series of high-level executions ostensibly ordered by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who succeeded his father in 2011.
"This is a relatively new phenomenon, in terms of public executions of senior officials," says Scott Snyder, a senior fellow of Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Associated Press, which has a bureau in Pyongyang, asserts that Kim has executed about 15 high-level officials this year. His father, Kim Jong-il, preferred to exile his political rivals from the capital or assign them to lowly roles in rural outposts, says Snyder (though there are accounts of Kim Jong-il executing dissidents during his transition to power).
While it's evident that Kim is trying to solidify his grip on power, the situation in Pyongyang remains murky at best.
"The problem is that there is no quality human intelligence inside North Korea and there is very little quality information about Kim Jong-un personally," says David Welch, CIGI chair and global security fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ont., adding that Dennis Rodman knows more about Kim than any one country.
The result is that South Korean and Western intelligence agencies rely on accounts from a large (and growing) network of defectors, satellite imagery analysis and sometimes deeply troubling rumours.
"The question is, how much of the information coming out of North Korea has been intentionally shaped to maintain uncertainty?" says Rodger Baker, vice-president of Asia-Pacific analysis at Stratfor.
The North Koreans, despite significant technological disadvantages, have mastered the art of information manipulation, "especially the timing and paths of satellites," according to Baker.
He points to instances when the North Korean military has intentionally created the appearance that rocket assemblies were being dismantled, only to test-fire them before the next surveillance satellite passes overhead.
"They're a tiny country that sits at the pivot of Asia's great powers. They've been dealt a terribly weak hand and they've played it brilliantly."
A market for 'outlandish' stories
Adding to the confusion is that South Korean intelligence and the South Korean media — which are notoriously quick to run with implausible stories from the North — have been wrong many times before. It was reported in 2013 that Kim's suspected former lover Hyon Song Wol was publicly executed by firing squad — only to appear on the state's TV channel months later.
Or the gruesome rumour that Kim had his uncle (who was arrested) torn apart by hunting dogs, a notion that originated from a satirical post on Chinese social media before it was published by Western-owned media outlets in Beijing.
"There is a market for outlandish stories about the North and Kim Jong-un," says Welch. "You get a lot of stories making fairly strong, overly detailed claims that often turn out to be entirely wrong down the road."
But sorting fact from fiction is compounded by the uncomfortable reality that many of the "most ghoulish and often ridiculous things" that outsiders hear about North Korea sometimes contain a kernel of truth, according to Joshua Stanton, who runs the website One Free Korea.
Take, for example, the bizarre 1978 incident when North Korean agents abducted South Korean movie director Shin Sang-ok on the orders of Kim Jong-il. Shin was forced to produce multiple films about mythical creatures during eight years in captivity (Shin eventually escaped while in Austria for a film festival).
'It's deadly serious'
Because the information about April's bizarre execution came from multiple sources, according to the South Korean intelligence service, there is very likely an element of truth to it.
But the public's incessant focus on the most sensational stories to come out of North Korea — some of which are created and promoted by Kim's regime for propaganda purposes — shifts the focus away from human rights atrocities in the country.
"These kinds of stories reinforce an almost comedic view of North Korea, when, in fact, it's deadly serious," says Snyder.
"They're developing nuclear weapons, hundreds of thousands of people are imprisoned in inhumane conditions, and coverage of that suffers because we are constantly focused on the weird."