North Korea: The Kim Yong Chol purge that wasn’t

Reporters must be more responsible in separating fact from the fiction
Fyodor Tertitskiy
June 3rd, 2019
Short version – “not dead,” as Sherlock Holmes told John Watson at the beginning of the third season of the popular BBC series. And it seems that Vice-Chairman Kim Yong Chol is even luckier than the great detective: not only is he not dead, but he has also not been purged, despite reports suggesting otherwise.
Knowing Kim Yong Chol, you could easily imagine him reading these reports with his signature smirk.
False reports are a common problem when dealing with North Korea, since there is so little known about the top elite. We don’t generally have such problems when discussing other countries – a high-ranking official being dismissed from their position is typically not a state secret.
However, this is different when it comes to North Korea. We are talking about the country that often classifies information about those who hold top positions in the Party, a country that is yet to even state in which year the Supreme Leader was born.
Furthermore, foreign journalists cannot travel around easily in North Korea. Thus, they cannot do the interviews and investigations one would be perfectly able to do, say, in China.
Due to this extreme level of secrecy, misreporting is bound to happen.
Remember the ‘Hyon case’ – in 2014 there were reports about general Hyon Yong Chol and singer Hyon Song Wol being purged, yet none of these were reported in the DPRK state press.
Their supposed crimes were quite random and ridiculous – one of Hyon Yong Chol’s alleged crimes was falling asleep at an ideological event, and Hyon Song Wol was accused of starring in a pornographic video.
In the end, the report about Hyon Yong Chol was proven to be correct, and the report about Hyon Song Wol was shown to be wrong — she even reappeared in North Korean press later.
The truth is that you are gambling when making assessments about such reports, as you can never be 100% certain they’re true. And, once you start gambling, someday you are bound to lose.
There is not really any way to conduct a thorough fact check on any of these reports. However, there are some ways to assess if the report is more or less likely to be true.
First, use logic. Case in point: Kim Yong Chol. On one hand, it seems reasonable that he was punished for Hanoi: Pyongyang seemed to have invested a lot in the meeting only for it to end with Trump agreeing to nothing.
On the other, from what we know of Kim Jong Un, he is not the type to wait too long before purging someone. If he was that displeased with Kim Yong Chol, he would have sent him to the camp in March. Then again, maybe he did, and we just learned about it later.
But. as we have seen, a logical approach does not always guarantee success.
The truth is that you are gambling when making assessments on such reports… and, once you start gambling, someday you are bound to lose.
The next method would be to check for Kim Yong Chol’s appearances in the Rodong Sinmun. Between the Hanoi summit and his alleged purge, Kim had actually appeared once: when he was elected to the Supreme People’s Assembly.
This made the report about his purge somewhat suspicious. The SPA session was called after Kim Jong Un had assessed the Hanoi summit. At this session he appointed a new Premier, and delivered a speech expressing his disappointment with the Hanoi summit, preceding inter-Korean cooperation grinding to a halt.
If he had decided to purge Kim Yong Chol, the Vice-Chairman would have been toiling in some faraway valley, not sitting inside the SPA hall in April.
The third and final method is not really applicable in this case, but I’ll mention it anyway. The most reliable sources are, often, official statements from the NIS (the South Korean National Intelligence Service).
Here I am referring to official statements, not leaks (leaks, as is always the case with intelligence services, are sometimes deliberately false).
The NIS, unlike the media, does not feel the pressure to produce public content every day, and thus they can afford not to speak unless they are certain. And when they do say something, it’s worth listening: for example, they predicted Jang Song Thaek’s spectacular downfall in 2013 a few days before it actually happened.
Yet these tricks only reduce the chance of a misjudgment. One can never be 100% certain – this is the reality of studying North Korea.
In fact, we actually can’t even be 100% sure Kim Yong Chol did not, indeed, spend a month or so doing labor in the countryside. His latest appearance in the press was in early April during the elections to the Supreme People’s Assembly. Before that was Hanoi, in February.
But where was he in March? Where was he in May? We do not know.
The purge of Jang Song Thaek, at first a rumor, was later revealed to be true | Photo: KCTV
There are multiple cases of people being demoted and then reinstated back into the elite – Kim Yong Ju, Choe Gwang, Hwang Pyong So, to name a few. Choe Ryong Hae was rumored to have suffered a similar fate – perhaps even twice.
A month would be a short term – but given the contrast between the life of a Party vice-chairman and that of a typical inmate, even the thought of a week in a camp would chill the heart of any official.
So, it was possible. Although much more likely, the rumors were simply wrong.
Imagine that you are a journalist or an editor. You are sitting in your office when you are contacted by a trustworthy source, who tells you about rumors in Pyongyang that Kim sent someone to a concentration camp.
You call some experts. They, naturally, say this may be true, but it also may be false. They don’t have any other sources.
You try to think about it logically. It does seem possible, since you know that people are occasionally killed off in North Korea without any obvious reason. Remember Hyon Yong Chol, who at the time had just returned from Russia, only to meet his demise. Or Uncle Jang.
But, then again, what if the rumors are not true?
Amid the creeping doubts, you still have a decision to make: publish it, or don’t.
Naturally, there are those who maintain you should not publish unless you are 100% sure. But doing this will lead to 95% of your reporting being KCNA and Rodong Sinmun articles. We would not have learned about the fate of Hyon Yong Chol, Hwang Pyong So, Kim Won Hong, U Tong Chuk, and many, many other purged officials if it were not for the media duly reporting the rumors.
So maybe the honest thing would be to do just that – say that your newspaper heard some rumors that suggest x, y, and z. However, many readers, especially those who are unfamiliar with reporting North Korea, will wonder why you have not confirmed these rumors.
What if the rumors are not true? Amid the creeping doubts, you still have a decision to make – publish it, or don’t.
If, say, your source told you that a minister in Poland has just been dismissed, you would call Warsaw, you would ask your Polish friends, you would contact your colleagues. You wouldn’t just say “we heard some rumors.”
But when dealing with reports about North Korea, 100% certainty can never be achieved. Bearing this in mind, I think one could give the following advice to journalists and to readers.
For journalists: if you have some rumors you are willing to share, do so. But emphasize multiple times that they may not be true, and mention any information that contradicts the claims of your source.
Use logic and common sense and reflect this in your piece. Always check open sources and always ask the NIS for commentary when you hear about the latest purge.
Phrase the piece and especially the headline so that you make clear you are not endorsing the rumor – if it is proven wrong, people are likely to accuse you of misreporting, even if you have accurately stated that you heard some rumors and nothing else.
For readers: those who report on the North Korean elite are not operating in a normal journalistic environment. Therefore, applying normal standards to them is like asking a man with a paralyzed leg why he cannot run.
In most cases, journalists are doing their best, with information that cannot be totally fact-checked.
Unless it was a case of deliberate misreporting, cut them some slack. But if it was then, of course, give the fake news the treatment it deserves.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Joint press corps