• Thomas Mutch

READING THE NORTH KOREAN RUNES: Why is accurate information so hard to get out of North Korea?

Had it not been for the Coronavirus crisis sweeping the globe, a possible power struggle in a deprived, nuclear armed nation would have dominated headlines. Reports abounded that Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un was dead or in a coma, and speculation mounted that his equally ruthless sister and propaganda chief Kim Yo Jong was poised to take power. There was breathless and hasty speculation among Western media outlets. A CNN tweet, later altered, read “US Source: North Korean leader in grave danger after surgery”.


It turned out to be nothing of the sort. A grinning, boisterous looking Kim appeared on North Korean state TV to open a fertilizer factory just a few days ago, leaving major Western outlets including CNN and NBC with egg on their faces.


Eric Gomez, the CATO institute specialist interviewed for The Red Line, noted that a common problem with North Korean reporting is that “rumours are picked up with thin sources, but are then echoed as ‘reports’ by increasingly reputable outlets.”

His theory is that the absences were coronavirus related. He told The Red Line “he was in the Politburo meeting, the leading decision meeting body of the Workers Party” but was not present at the Day of the Sun, because these events draw large crowds where it is much harder to enforce distancing.

To be fair, even the much maligned CNN report noted that ‘the situation remains murky as gathering intelligence out of North Korea is notoriously difficult” and quoted an expert admitting “it’s very easy to be wrong on this.”

A similar, unconfirmed report earlier this year stated that to prevent a Coronavirus outbreak, the North Koreans had simply shot their only confirmed patient. This seemed to confirm all our suspicions about the ruthlessness and inhumanity of Kim’s regime. But the report was never confirmed by US or South Korean intelligence. Snopes attempted to verify this report but could only say that not only was it unverified, but we would likely never know.

These incidents show just how tricky it really is to get solid intelligence from such an insular country.

So how do we get information out of North Korea?

One important source is defectors who have made it to the South. Sometimes, they make the perilous crossing over the Chinese border and down through China and Laos to illegally enter Thailand, where they will be “deported” to South Korea. Other times, they will be senior diplomatic officials who defect when sent or stationed abroad. They often come with valuable information about life in the totalitarian state, often with many stories of severe human rights abuses. They can also have valuable intelligence about the political and economic situation of the country.

No one doubts that these defectors have usually suffered mightily at the hands of the Kim regime

But North Korea analysts understand that there are incentive structures in place that lead defectors to sometimes exaggerate or even fabricate their stories. There have been many claims made by defectors- including human experimentation, or the burning alive of Christians- that have been either proven false or have been recanted.

Media incentives for both journalists and sources around North Korea reporting can be slightly perverse. For one, it is an extremely popular international topic. From serious news reports to travel bloggers YouTube videos, everyone in the media knows how easy it is to make North Korea content go viral. People are fascinated by the pageantry and mystique of the world’s most secretive nation. Similarly, there are few consequences for getting information wrong. A media organization will never be legally liable, and the North Korean regime will almost never confirm or deny reports about the country in a believable manner. North Korean dissidents are usually paid for interviews, and some find that the more shocking stories attract more media attention and give them a higher public profile. Others see the exaggeration as noble lies that draw more attention to the legitimate crimes of the Kim regime.

One report from NKNews quoted a dissident saying “most North Koreans do not worry about small factual mistakes as long as the big picture that North Korea violates human rights is right… we do not want to ruin the bigger political moves like the UN committee of investigation or the US Human Rights Act”. Defectors are therefore an invaluable, but not always reliable, source of North Korea intel.

Jacob Bogle, our expert on North Korean analysis, explained to The Red Line some of the techniques him and his team use to get reliable analysis. Satellite imagery is a major one.

It can show you when they are setting up to do a military drill, or when a nuclear test might occur. It can shed light on their economy, how their crop yields are going, or when a new factory is being built. Piecing those together, looking at images across time, you end up building this picture of ‘this is exactly what’s going on’ because pictures do not lie like people do.

You could use this to determine Kim Jong Un’s location, for instance.

“You would look for movements in the number of guards, the number of vehicles, and see if one of his armoured trains is at a particular location, or if his boat is being taken out, are there greater concentrations of people at a particular palace? if he’s on a field guide visit, is there a motorcade nearby, so there are lots of small details that if you pay attention to you start to develop a picture of what is happening.”

Analysts also scour North Korean state media for clues to the real situation.

“We look not just at television but government reports and things, is just to look for the pictures that they show. Places like factories, military bases, their locations are all supposed to be a secret but if you look closely enough you can determine certain about the shape of a building or maybe there is a mountain off in the distance, that will help you determine the actual location of where what they are talking about is. By doing that enough you build up ‘alright there is a factory here, there is a factory there, there is a base over here’ and then that tells you the overall picture of their military infrastructure and what is important to them.”

Our final expert, Soo Kim, noted that the best insights into a possible crisis in North Korea would come from the Chinese border region. China has the best intelligence about North Korean affairs of any other country, and we would expect to see major troop movements or other preparations in the border regions. The Chinese are deeply concerned that a regime collapse in North Korea would send a flood of refugees across the frontier, which could cause civil strife or economic damage in their northern region.

She noted that she saw no evidence of any military build-up along the Yalu river crossing, or any other indication of unrest. Therefore, experts could conclude it was unlikely there was a serious threat to Kim Jong Un’s life.

All of this smoke and mirrors serves to add to the sombre mystery surrounding North Korea.

Gomez says “if Trump had a heart attack, Mike Pence would become President. In North Korea, nobody knows! When you have so little hard information it is easy to speculate and play out different scenarios for the sake of analysis. But I hope this episode engenders some restraint on the part of media.”

Written by Nick Mutch

Based off of information from Eric Gomez (CATO institute)

Based on The Red Line Episode 16 - The Geopolitics of North Korea