North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has appeared at a fertiliser factory, looking remarkably cheerful for a man killed off by rumour and some of the world’s media last week. These will be carefully staged and timed photos, but what can we learn about the North Korea rumour mill from this and past episodes?
TMZ – among others – had him for dead; Chinese social media whispered that his doctors were too scared to operate and so he died before a Chinese medical team arrived – an apparent cautionary tale of being a casualty of your own fearsome power.
This is not the first time the North Korean leader has disappeared from public view. In February, he was absent for almost three weeks without wild speculation. In 2014, he was absent for 40 days – then the rumours went that he had been ousted in a political coup.
He turned up with a walking stick. It was not a coup, but perhaps gout.
South Korean intelligence later reported that he had undergone surgery on his ankle. Obviously none of this was confirmed by the North. They just kept pumping out the jocular photo opportunities from inspections and other public events seemingly untouched by rampant rumours – just as they have done today.
So what was it about this absence that allowed him to die in speculation?
There were three phases to the escalation. First, he missed a key anniversary on 15 April, the day of the sun, and incredibly important commemoration of the birthday of his grandfather, North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-un is known to model himself on his grandfather’s image, so missing this was reasonably seen as a sign that something was amiss.
Then a well-regarded defector website, Daily NK, which is funded by a US think tank, but which clearly also provides credible reports through its network, published a single-sourced story that he had undergone some sort of heart procedure and was recovering.
State media issued this picture said to show Kim Jong-un opening the fertiliser plant on Friday
Stage three was when the world’s media pounced on that report and ferreted out their own unnamed sources in intelligence communities and elsewhere – and a combination of these ended up with formulations of Kim being “gravely ill” or even dead.
Even as South Korea said they had not seen any unusual activity and even denied reports of this death, the rumours kept growing and the echo chamber grew louder. Chinese social media began playing its role with rumours circulating there too.
In none of this was there any actual evidence: there were some very insightful analyses of train movements and activity around the resort of Wonsan that seemed to weigh on the side that he might not have expired – yet.
So where do these sources who fuel speculation that spirals in the media actually come from? Surely there must be a North Korean origin somewhere? And are we seeing more than we used to?
Rumours have always happened and there is historical record going back 30 years on this. There are a couple of places from within North Korea they can originate.
In the past, what is known as the foreign trade