North Korea: A Journalistic Predicament

By Joohee Cho, ABC News Seoul, South Korea

There is probably nothing more frustrating for a reporter than covering a country that you cannot actually visit. Instead of firsthand interaction the reporter is forced to rely on third-party recollections, propaganda and academic analysts as news sources. That has been precisely my predicament for the last 13 years while trying to cover North Korea from South Korea.

Aside from my rare half-dozen trips to the most reclusive state in the world, I’ve found that figuring out what’s going on in that hollow, gray nation is an endless guessing game. Take Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s leader, for example. For the last few weeks rumors have circulated about his health. Even today South Korean newspaper Dong-a Ilbo claims that Kim has suffered a "serious setback," citing an unnamed official who says that he has been hospitalized.

There has been even more extreme conjecture in the past. In September, Japanese professor Toshimitsu Shigemura from the well-respected Waseda University published a book saying that Kim had died in the autumn of 2003. Shigemura claimed that the world had been fooled by a series of stand-ins who appeared at official state events. In May, a Korean Internet news Web site reported that Kim had been assassinated while traveling along a highway. Last year, rumors of Kim’s illness also circulated after a Japanese newspaper reported that six German doctors had visited Pyongyang.

The big question: Who churns out these bits and pieces of information?  Most of the time, it is the small-size media from South Korea, China or Japan, citing anonymous sources: “close North Korean watchers,” “government officials,” “residents near the North Korean border” or “sources close to Pyongyang.” And these reports are only the beginning of a bizarre hoopla.

In the age of the Internet, the original report is immediately quoted by other local media platforms. And then, the international wires such as The Associated Press or Reuters diligently pick up the story citing “local media reports.” Once it’s out there in the global community, the anonymously sourced information becomes an almost fact and is picked up by other international print or TV media.

The original report often travels full circle when the local media that began the cycle run a follow-up story citing international media claims. Eventually this sourcing circus turns a rumor into legitimate information.

Until North Korea opens up, this hoopla will not end. At times, the governments of South Korea, Japan, the United States or China officially announce that they believe some of the North Korean rumors are untrue,  but even they do not cite a reliable source. But unless we, the journalists, witness with our own eyes the status of the almighty Kim, this guessing game will go on and on.

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