Kim Jong-Un’s disappearance last month from the public eye sparked an international media firestorm after reputable news outlets like CNN falsely reported the North Korean dictator had died.
Last month, American media began raising questions concerning Kim’s health. On April 20, the Daily NK, an online news outlet that focuses on North Korea, reported that Kim had undergone a cardiovascular procedure on April 12 and was in recovery. One day later, CNN reported that Kim had experienced health complications following surgery and was in “grave danger,” citing “a U.S. official with direct knowledge.” The Wall Street Journal and the United Kingdom’s Metro followed suit and began paying close attention to any new reports on the dictator’s health.
The Daily NK reported, citing an anonymous source, that Kim’s surgery was required due to factors including his obesity and frequent smoking. One Hong Kong-based broadcast network claimed that Kim had passed away after an operation to insert a stent was unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Shukan Gendai, a Japanese magazine, reported that Kim had lapsed into a “vegetative state.”
However, on April 26, the New York Times reported that the South Korean government was confident there was “nothing unusual” about Kim’s health. The coverage of Kim’s supposedly critical condition stood on unfirm ground amid several conflicting reports. The lack of transparency or updates from North Korean state media contributed to the confusion and fueled conspiracy theories.
In an op-ed in Al Jazeera, Se-Woong Koo, a co-founder and publisher of Korea Expose, criticized how Western media outlets reported on Kim’s prolonged disappearance. American and British reporting jumped to unsubstantiated conclusions, and statements began to contradict one another, Koo argued.
Misleading reporting on North Korea from Western media outlets is not unprecedented. In 2018, a front-page piece in the New York Times covered potential missile developments in the Sakkanmol Ballistic Missile Operating Base, citing satellite photography and a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). David Sanger and William Broad reported that North Korea offered to “dismantle a major nuclear site,” while continuing production of more than a dozen other sites that would “bolster the launches” of nuclear weapons.
However, in a scathing exposé of the Times’ reporting on the missile developments, Tim Shorrock, a national security reporter for The Nation wrote that the New York Times “stretched the findings” of the report from CSIS.
While Sanger and Broad reported that the new satellite images had come after North Korea had agreed to eliminate its missile program, Shorrock pointed out that the images were taken two and a half months prior to the summit between Kim and President Trump. Both NPR and NBC Nightly News picked up the misleading report and ran with it almost verbatim, Shorrock wrote.
North Korea has remained without a free press for years. The media that it does house is state-run and is heavily censored to only present a pro-government narrative. Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il, was dubbed a “predator of press freedom” by Reporters Without Borders in 2010.
In fact, most public communications in North Korea are stifled. Between 2004 and 2008, the use of mobile phones on the part of citizens was forbidden. Even after the ban was lifted, the access permitted to such devices has remained meager.
The government also hinders the interactions of external journalists visiting North Korea. Foreign media are painted in a primarily negative light. When outside reporters are permitted within the state, they are not allowed to use phones and must adhere to additional restrictions.
“Reporting on North Korea, the world’s most opaque nation, is by definition conjecture,” journalist Isaac Stone Fish opined in the New York Times. “The country might be facing another famine, or it might be trying to weaken international support for U.N. sanctions by manufacturing glimpses of starvation. Kim Jong Il might be trying to transfer power to his son, or preparing to share it with his brother-in-law.”