Many allegedly ‘paranoid’ features of the North Korean state actually have very rational explanations.
So, more crazy news from North Korea: according to the briefings by the National Intelligence Service, Minister of Defense Hyon Yong-chol had been executed for disrespect and insubordination. Allegedly, he was shot by an anti-aircraft machine gun at a military school near Pyongyang.
The story has been run and re-run by virtually all major information outlets worldwide. Indeed, the picture of a senior officer being killed by a burst of anti-aircraft gunfire at short range is bizarre, and bizarre things sell newspapers. However, many a North Korean watcher met the report with a skeptical smile.
On one hand, it is quite possible that another top North Korean military commander has just lost his job and, perhaps, his life, too.
Kim Jong-Un treats the upper crust of the country’s political elite with remarkable harshness, and there is no need to have access to the top secret papers in order to see that a major purge is going on.
Within the last three years, top military commanders are replaced with remarkable speed, with the average term length for a minister of defense being less than six months.
Stalin-style political culture
It is also known that in December 2013 Kim Jong-Un ordered the arrest and execution of Chang Song-taek, a man who once was his second-in-command, and also happened to be his aunt’s husband.
Some other top commanders and officials disappeared recently, and their faces and names were erased from re-published books and archival photos – a sure sign of purge in North Korea’s Stalin-style political culture.
So, it is indeed likely that General Hyon Yong-chol died a violent death. But the details, including the rather exotic method of execution, make one somewhat skeptical – especially if one keeps in mind some recent media reports about North Korea.
Do you remember the Hyon Song-wol affair? In 2013, the world media reported that Kim Jong Un ordered and execution of a famous female singer Hyon Song-wol who, it was claimed, once used to be his mistress. Her alleged claim was involvement with clandestine porn production: allegedly, the videos with Hyon Song-wol acting salaciously were to be sold in China.
It is indeed likely that General Hyon Yong-chol died a violent death. But the details, including the rather exotic method of execution, make one somewhat skeptical...
The story was too good to be missed: a crazy dictator kills his lover who turned porno actress. So, it was reported widely, and still is sometimes mentioned in media as a fact.
There is a problem, though: the charming Hyon Song-wol, proudly spotting the uniform of a North Korean army colonel (she signs for a military band and hence technically is a commissioned officer) appeared on TV in 2014, many months after her supposed public execution, and has been quite prominent ever since.
This was not the only case when people, widely believed to have been executed, turned up alive and well. Actually, the list of such allegedly executed personalities is long enough. For example, in 2013 the world media wrote about the execution of Yi Su-yong. The “executed” diplomat is certainly alive since he is North Korea’s current foreign minister.
Fed to the dogs?
Or what about the story about Kim Jong-Un’s order to throw his disgraced uncle to the dogs, in the most literal sense? Soon after the execution of Chang Song-taek, the media began to report that the old man was fed to the dogs alive.
It took a couple of weeks before it became clear that the story was first invented by a satirical Chinese blog, whose fake report was then cited by a Hong Kong tabloid. The Hong Kong journalists did not mention that the blog specialised in producing fake satirical “news”, Onion-style. Still, since then, it went viral.
Why is North Korea treated in such a manner?
First, of course, it itself invites such treatment. The government produces tonnes of comically inept propaganda (visit any North Korean official website to enjoy the style), and it is very repressive. There is little doubt that the regime is brutal and often acts in a peculiar way. Consider, for instance, the officially published accusation against Chang Song-taek whose capital crimes included not applauding Kim Jong-Un loudly enough, and putting a commemorative stone with some propaganda in the shadow of a tree, instead of bright sunlight?
Second, utmost secrecy plays a role. Since foreigners in North Korea are rare and watched closely, and their interaction with locals is usually supervised, there is little opportunity to check such reports. Indeed, it is fair to describe North Korea as a secretive dictatorship, and, hence, a place where everything is possible.
In this environment, a number of people are willing to produce fake news, which are likely to be believed and cannot be verified. Some of these people have political motives, but in most cases, such news are fabricated by journalists and their contacts, and then disseminated widely by the media.
If the news item is catchy and sensationalist enough, it is likely to go viral, and even if subsequent events show that this particular “news” was nonsense, it is still often remembered as fact.
So, what did happen to General Hyon? Did he lose his job? Certainly. Was he killed? Probably. Was he really vaporised by anti-aircraft gunfire? Not impossible, but I would not bet on this.
Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.