North Korea: Sorting fact from fiction in the Hermit Kingdom

Joshua Stanton on the challenges of identifying false or exaggerated reports from North Korea.
Scroll to the bottom of this post to read some eyebrow-raising headlines, and find out which are rooted in truth.

North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un's former girlfriend was  reportedly executed last summer -- but then she apparently turned up, very much alive, on North Korean TV. On the heels of this latest head-scratcher, Jian speaks with long-time Korea watcher  Joshua Stanton about how to sort fact from fiction in the Hermit Kingdom. 

Stanton lists some ways false or exaggerated stories can screened out or better qualified; explains the value of connecting with more credible sources, including local guerrilla journalists; and warns that stories with "click through" appeal, often about the "unknowable" activities of the inner court, may be more about diversion than revelation.

"I think that [inner court stories] tend to distract us from more knowable things that are happening among the vast majority of the population -- food shortages, severe human rights violations, concentration camps and the treatment of refugees," says Stanton. 


A quick guide to eyebrow-raising headlines from North Korea, as compiled by Q producer Julie Crysler. How many of these stories would you find believable on first glance? 

Kim Jong-Un executed his uncle by feeding him to a pack of hungry dogs.

PARTLY TRUE. Kim's uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was the victim of a high-profile purge in December 2013. He and a group of associates were accused of plotting a coup. There was no specific mention of how the execution was carried out, but analysts say the most likely method was by firing squad. The story that Kim fed him to a pack of dogs seems to have originated on the Weibo account of a Chinese satirist. 

All North Korean men are now required to wear the same haircut as Kim Jong-Un.

This one was widely reported, but quickly debunked. It's quite clear from recent photos that men in North Korea wear a range of different hairstyles. However, like many viral stories out of North Korea, there is a grain of truth. North Korean defectors report that the Hermit Kingdom does indeed have 'fashion police' that keep a close eye out for inappropriate clothing and haircuts. 

North Korean scientists claimed to have found evidence that unicorns exist.

PARTLYTRUE. Yes, it's true that North Korea's state controlled media service, KCNA, reported that archaeologists had "reconfirmed" the lair of a mythical creature known as the "unicorn lion". North Korean media have also previously made a number of outlandish claims about the Kim family, for example, claiming that Kim Jong-un's father learned to walk at three weeks old and once scored 11 holes in one in a single round of golf. 

Kim Jong-Un's father kidnapped a South Korean filmmaker and forced him to make a Godzilla movie.

TRUE. Yes, in 1978, director Shin Sang-ok was kidnapped by North Korean intelligence, and forced to make a monster movie in the tradition of Godzilla. He wrote about the experience in his memoir, "Kingdom of Kim" and you can watch the resulting film in the window embedded below. 

> truth-o-meter banner image: still from "Pulgasari" (1985), directed by Shin Sang-ok


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