Brought to you in partnership with Media Today. The original Korean version was published on April 25, 2018.
In August 2013, Chosun Ilbo reported that over ten North Korean artists including the singer Hyon Song-wol had been executed for producing and selling pornographic videos. The next year, however, these results were proven false by the release of a picture of Hyon in army uniform. This February, Hyon visited Korea with a troupe of North Korean artists in advance of the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games. The newspaper has been berated for the incorrect reporting, but Chosun Ilbo has not published a correction, clearly explained its decision making, or committed to preventing a similar situation from recurring.
In the South Korean media, North Korea is a topic for which fact checking, the basic principle of journalism, does not apply. It is difficult to number the incorrect reports. The media here poured out a river of articles about the death of Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung on November 16, 1986. But he was actually still alive and didn’t pass away until July 1994. In 2014, rumors about a declaration of martial law in Pyongyang, a coup d’état, and the proxy rule of Kim Yo-jong were proven wrong with the emergence of Chairman Kim Jong-un of the State Affairs Commission of North Korea. In an article titled “Why Koreans misreport” in the ‘Weekly World Magazine (世界週報, Sekai shuho)’, Sasaki Makoto, who had served as a Seoul correspondent for Japan’s Jiji Press, pointed out the following characteristics of the South’s coverage of the North:
1) Reports are written because they are not refuted; 2) Newsrooms view even suspicious coverage as good; 3) Principles come first, to the extent that reporters tend to neglect actual reporting; 4) Reporters who lack necessary knowledge about the North report everything they hear from their sources without checking the authenticity.
These numerous false and incorrect reports on North Korea are not something new. The bigger problem is that these false reports tend to point in a certain direction. The examples of misreporting mentioned above tend to become the basis of hardline stances on North Korea or to lead people to view the country as absurd.
When the Park Geun-hye administration announced the closure of the Kaesong industrial complex on February 10, 2016, the Ministry of Unification revealed to reporters that Ri Yong-gil, first deputy chief of the Korean People’s Army, had been executed. It was not true. Regarding the ministry’s message, Jang Yong-hun, a North Korea specialist reporter at Yonhap News, said, “The message was ‘Kim Jong-un is a bad guy who kills people’.” He pointed out that the government “had established a North Korea policy and manipulated the media accordingly.”
The press cannot ignore the information that the South Korean government announces. However, Jang asked, “Shouldn’t we be suspicious when an execution happens on the same day that the Kaesong industrial complex shuts down?” He asserted that “writing straight articles, quoting the government’s announcement, and then speculating about the reasons for the execution in follow-up articles, as though writing fiction, is wrong.”
In an article titled “Is it okay to continue reporting on North Korea without making corrections or counterarguments?”, Park Sung Hee, professor of Communication and Media at Ewha Womans University referred to Sasaki Makoto’s assertions and said, “There is not much we can do about factors out of our control, such as North Korea’s isolation, but other factors can be corrected by the press. We should not try to compensate for the lack of information with speculation.”
“The courage not to write about unverified facts is more important that an exclusive report”
The isolation of North Korea perpetuates false reporting. Broadly, there are two ways journalists cover the North: announcements made by the North or South Korean authorities and information gained through people in direct contact with the North. The principal sources are reports from North Korea’s state-run media (such as Korean Central Television, Korean Central News Agency, and Rodong Sinmun) and announcements from South Korean government agencies (such as the Ministry of Unification, the National Intelligence Service, and the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee). But when using such information, it is important to keep in mind that the government wishes to use it in domestic politics.
The press has to correct the distortions in the information announced by the authorities, but there are a limited number of sources with which to crosscheck. You can only get more pieces of the puzzle if you have a broad network of sources, such as members of aid groups sent to the the North or people with connections from inside China or Japan. The international press regularly writes that North Korea is an isolated country and that the announcements of the South Korean government have been wrong on many occasions.
It is possible to learn information from North Korean defectors and others who have left the country. In this way, reporters can at least gain second-hand knowledge. However, such information is difficult to verify, and reporters unintentionally make false reports. One North Korea specialist reporter explained that “the courage not to write about unverified facts is more important that an exclusive report”. This courage was particularly necessary during the last administration, when inter-Korea relations were especially strained.
Coverage of North Korea was constricted during the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations
Inter-Korea exchange became less frequent during the Lee Myung-bak administration. Yonhap News reporter Jeong Il-yong, who also serves as the representative of the Press Headquarters of the ‘South Korean Committee for the Implementation of the June 15 Joint Declaration’ (6/15 Press Headquarters), explained, “After 2005, our press headquarters met with representatives from the North more than twice a year. Lee Myung-bak’s administration stopped this, so despite contact from the North, the last time we met was the fall of 2008.” At the time, an incorrect rumor circulated saying that “the North was unwilling to meet with the South.”
Less exchange disrupts the flow of information. Nam Moon-hee, SisaIN special reporter for the Korean Peninsula, remarked, “A decade or two ago, there were a variety of news sources on North Korea. Since the Lee Myung-bak administration, the amount of information we collect has decreased.” South Korea has also begun to rely more on the foreign press for news on the North. At the same time, the government’s attempts to control the media extend to North Korean coverage. Reporters who caused discomfort for the government have been removed from the media scene. One symbolic incident was the resignation of a reporter who published exclusive news about information which the National Intelligence Service (NIS) had been unaware of.
In November 2010, Shindonga raised suspicions that the NIS had surveilled Choi, a Yonhap News reporter who published an exclusive article about Kim Jong-un being Kim Jong-il’s heir apparent. The NIS had been unaware of the content of the exclusive news at the time. At Yonhap News, a rumor that the NIS was annoyed with Choi began to circulate. Choi was later assigned to a different department, under the suspected influence of the NIS, and took a leave of absence. In October 2015, Choi quit, citing an “impossible work environment”, and rejoined recently after the new president of Yonhap News took office.
News about North Korea has been shaped to suit the ruling administration’s point of view. Within the public broadcasting industry, KBS and MBC reporting on North Korea has been widely criticized as stemming from a Cold War mentality. The usage of reports on North Korea to overshadow Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and the exaggeration of the threat of North Korea have been deemed likewise problematic.
In 2010, KBS cancelled its In Depth 60 Minutes episode on the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan. It was finally aired this March, after eight years. News about North Korea was also used to attack and label politicians of opposition parties as “pro-North”. Sometimes news desk reporters discussed the North Korean issue without sufficient investigation. Rather than collaborating on North Korean reporting, departments worked separately, using coverage to their own advantage.
The emergence of cable news has increased the number of programs featuring North Korean defectors. Experts warn that their personal accounts need to be used carefully. Many come from areas around the China border and rely on inaccurate memories. Lee Yong-jong, a specialist reporter on North Korea remarked, “It is important that the planners and hosts of such programs have sufficient expertise to filter the defectors’ statements.” The practice of paying defectors for interviews further chips away at the credibility of the reports.
In the end, quality reporting on North Korea depends on three factors: the ability of reporters to comb through information, company-wide support and cooperation, and the direction of government policy on North Korea and the press.
The press needs to reexamine itself, and the government’s attitude toward it needs to change
With the inter-Korea summit on April 27 just around the corner, the press is preparing to show its new self. On April 24, the 6/15 Press Headquarters reflected on the huge amount of past misreporting from the media and promised to abide by the ‘Media Coverage and Production Regulations for Peaceful Unification, Reconciliation and Cooperation of the Two Koreas’, created in 1995 by the Journalists Association of Korea, the Korean Producers & Directors’ Association, and the ‘National Federation of Mediaworkers’ (now the National Union of Mediaworkers)
“In the regulations, the code of practice for broadcasting includes efforts to defuse tension between the two Koreas as well as the prevention of reports based on speculation and the use of caricature materials,” the 6/15 Press Headquarters remarked. “In addition, the code of practice for production includes a pursuit of the value of unification, a break from Cold War era practices, an effort to understand the differences between the two Koreas, and a focus on the homogeneity of the two Koreas. We resolve to be reborn as a unified press in this new era of search for peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
The attitude of the South and North Korean leadership also needs to improve. For instance, the press is often excluded from major inter-Korea exchange. Journalists reporting on North Korea jokingly say, “The first thing the North and South agree on is to ‘exclude the press’.” For the concert held in Pyongyang on April 1, except for one cameraman, none of the South Korean reporters were allowed inside. The exclusion of the press from events other than strategic negotiations is a problem of the government’s making. Reporters uniformly feel that the government doesn’t give much thought to involving the media in inter-Korea exchange.
The discrimination against foreign press corps in South Korea needs to be addressed too. “The Ministry of Unification and other government agencies exclude foreign journalists in the background briefings after press conferences,” one foreign reporter has complained. “I don’t understand the point of us having to read the Korean news afterward and re-request confirmation from the agencies.”
Ties between journalists of the two Koreas are expected to increase after the inter-Korea summit and Yonhap News is preparing to establish a Pyongyang bureau in the long term. Some have pointed out that the establishment of regular communication between the major press groups of the two Koreas is more important than competition between individual media outlets.
The 6/15 Press Headquarters requested that the South Korean government “fully guarantee mutual exchange and cooperation between the press groups of the two Koreas and actively support the resumption of press relations”. Active press relations will enable long-term inter-Korea exchange, independent of politics, and lead to more accurate reporting on North Korea.