Perils of the Non-Verified and the Fictional: Just Another Week in News from North Korea

Why did it take me this long to figure it out?  With the exception of Sunny Lee, no news reporter who writes in English, who is based in Beijing or Seoul or Washington, whose job it is to report on North Korea, actually reads the Chinese-language press about North Korea.

How else to explain the void in this story about a train from Sinuiju, which I shall relay to you presently:

Scrolling through my Asahi Shimbun on December 27, I catch one of the lead stories of the day, carried via Reuters, crazily entitled “Train Carrying Gifts for North Korean Heir Derailed“:

A train packed with birthday gifts for North Korea’s leader-in-waiting Kim Jong-un derailed this month in a possible act of sabotage, a Seoul-based radio station which broadcasts across the border reported on Monday.

Open Radio for North Korea, a non-profit station which often cites sources in the reclusive, impoverished North, said the train laden with gifts including televisions and watches came off the rails on Dec. 11 near North Korea’s border with China.

“The security service has been in an emergency situation because a train departing Sinuiju and headed for Pyongyang derailed on Dec. 11,” the radio station quoted a source in the security service in North Phyongan province as saying.

Armed with such information, the reader can bask in the presumptive knowledge that the corrupting penchant of the North Korean leadership for luxury and nepotism is proven yet again, and now, the people have begun to revolt.  While North Pyong’an province is always a good place to look when it comes to regime-destabilizing revolts (see: Sinuiju Incident, November 1945), the above report is very, very difficult to trust.  The outlet, Open Radio North Korea, appears to be funded by National Endowment for Democracy, and I think that you or I can buy airtime on it.  As this essay reminds us, the train story is based on a single unverified source inside of North Korea, and, I would add, is then embroidered with a few reminders that Kim Jong Il likes to purchase luxury goods in Austria (which he presumably has shipped by rail via China?).  But it makes fantastic headline news nevertheless.

This is where English-language media outlets might, for once, make use of their colleagues who write in Chinese and who, in spite of their “Xinhua goggles”, sometimes actually manage to do original reporting.  In my view, the story on the alleged train derailment should contain a paragraph like, well, like this one by yours truly:

While the derailment of the train cannot be verified, a Chinese reporter for Huanqiu Shibao who was traveling on the Sinuiju-Pyongyang line in mid-December noted the dilapidated condition of the railroads, and the very slow average speed of 30-40 km/hour; it takes about 5 1/2 hours to travel the 220 kilometers.  Passenger cars, as the Chinese paper reported, were stuffed with poorly-regulated goods coming in from Dandong.  In North Korea, a country with virtually no domestic air traffic or private automobiles, trains are the main method of transportation, making the railroad trunk south from Dandong via Sinuiju to Pyongyang the main conduit for Pyongyang’s consumer goods. The Huanqiu Shibao report describes a chaotic scene at the railway station in Sinuiju, passenger cars with no seats, and no baggage limits.  North Korean trains are overburdened and overweight, making the likelihood of an accident higher.  While the Chinese press has begun sporadically referring to reports of anti-regime unrest in North Korea, the Huanqiu Shibao reporter left little impression that the railroads had recently been sabotaged or were in danger of such.

Now that is what we call an incremental improvement, but when you’re dealing with a news report that is based entirely on a single fragment, the juxtaposition with another fragment (which itself contains a great deal more hard information than the Open News report!), you have to settle for it.  Or would you prefer that I remind you yet again that the Kim family has a high appetite for luxury goods, as recalled by Kim Jong Un’s former Japanese chef?

Beijing Signs Off on All North Korean Military Action, Right?

In other news of the makes-no-sense-but-nevertheless-worthy-of-comment-because-it-represents-a-common-trope variety, this analysis from the Falun Gong-affiliated newspaper Epoch Times parses the North Korean attack on Yeonpyeong Island:

In fact, there’s almost no way a move like this wouldn’t get green-lighted by the CCP—keep in mind, the communists have even gone so far as to make an historical claim to Northern Korea as Chinese territory—in part to make it clear who’s boss and in part to lay the groundwork for a possible annexation if the Stalinist regime becomes more trouble than its worth.

Excuse me?  Why do some people seem to have taken on a Jung Chang-style omniscience-when-it-comes-to-the-dialogue-and-thought-process-of-evil-communists?  OK, fine, I play along, along with the Epoch Times and scores of malinformed American neo-cons, I bring you what certainly, certainly must have occurred on November 22, 2010, the night before the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong, certainly in the style of a famous conversation by Peter Sellers:

Dai Bingguo, CCP Central Committee member and special envoy to the DPRK, wakes up from a nap, turns on a florescent lamp in Zhongnanhai, puts on his glasses, coughs, and sits up.  Clearing his throat and dressed in a white undershirt purchased in the few free hours he had in Milan to get away from Berlosconi, he toys with his cell phone and places a call to Pyongyang:

“Hello?  Kim Jong Il?  Hi, this is Dai Bingguo calling from Beijing.  Yes, yes, a socialist greeting to you as well!  Yes, yes, the events at our embassy in your capital have been very fun for us as well.  Yes, it’s a great destination for all of our young Foreign Ministry cadre, you know that.

Yes, yes, your son is very, very popular in our country.  He made such a good impression on all the cadre who hustled up to see him in Jilin in April.  Looks just like his grandfather, minus the goiter of course.  No, I did not read that article about Kim Jong Nam, but can assure you that the Southern Weekend newspaper will be duly reprimanded. You know none of us read that rag.  Seriously, your children are wonderful hostage-princes and I do love your jacket and I’m sorry that our press reported that you wear it to conceal a bulletproof vest.

What’s that?  You’re actually mad about something else?  You want to bomb an ROK island behind the northern limit line?  Fuck yes!

You know, Jong-il, this would be such a good time to follow up on the success from our little “Cheonan Incident” joint venture on the high seas this past March with our short and evil friend in Moscow.  Like Putin, I too believe in flashing a little steel and beating up a few racial minorities for the national ethos to improve.  Truth be told, our development in Shandong and Northeast China has been just a bit too harmonious for my personal tastes.  What ever happened to the drama and excitement of the 1950s and 60s!  Yeah!  That was awesome, dude!  I have never had so much fun as when we “bombarded the headquarters” while you built statues!

Dude, dude…Dude!  You have conventional weapons to burn! and a populace to mobilize around your red (and white and blue, ahem) banner. Kids these days…A few war flames might be just what we need to keep the people here on their toes and mindful of American imperialism.

You’ve been reading the White Papers and the Chinese press and checking out the reports from Hong Kong and of course the Korean-language stuff published in Seoul about us since the 1990s, right?  It’s just plain as day: our Chinese Communist Party is still just seized with the revolutionary fervor of Mao’s military romanticism and we long to strike the American military a blow on the Korean peninsula, driving them in a conventional warfare back to their bases on Japan, where our underground movements are poised to agitate the locals into pan-Asian paroxysms of anti-Americanism.

Yes, yes, Jong-il, that would be great!  Yes, just like your father’s partisans inside the Pusan perimeter, yes, they almost won the war for you, didn’t they?

Oh, my dear Jong-il, I think it would be a fantastic thing to do.  Keep everyone off balance, you know.  Totally!  Yeonpyeong island would be great!  We’ll even send reporters from Seoul to take pictures of the houses you bomb.  Chinese readers just love to see buildings demolished.  Especially the people in Sichuan.  Yes, yes, the Korean Wars are extremely popular there! You have lots of fans; just a matter of time before you get that new consulate opened, I’m sure.  No, I did not hear anything about the Juche study group in Lhasa.

What?  Oh my God, me too!  You know, in this game of bureaucratic balancing act of the post-totalitarian state, I am getting just a ton of pressure from the military leadership to throw less money at high-speed-trains and more at aircraft carriers.  Absolutely! why don’t you go ahead and kill a few more citizens and soldiers from one of our better trading partners in the region, because all this crap about economic development and regional cooperation is really just a facade. Yes, yes, Zhu Rongji is insufferable, isn’t he?  No, no, I haven’t heard from Yang Bin.  No!  I still really like both Dutch tulips and the Kim Jongillia!

Look, what we want to do is keep the South Koreans and the Americans and the Japanese both enraged and moving into a closer military alignment, because everyone knows that there is nothing better for China than a rearmed and aggravated Japan that is forced to think about doing preventative strikes on North Korean soil or sending the SDF to ‘self-defend’ on the Korean peninsula.  Of course!  Abduct as many as you want!  You’ve got nothing to worry about.

You’ve got nuclear weapons (yes! that little joke we pulled together — since like polyandrous brothers we share everything — of the nuclear test on May 25, 2009 on the border residents in Yanbian was so funny! there is nothing that makes we evil Party members in Zhongnanhai get a bigger belly laugh than a nuclear earthquake on our northeastern border!) and we’ve got your back, so, yes, I appreciate your calling me to ask, and do go ahead and shell that island.  Since you’ve been so transparent with us ever since 1945, I would recommend starting at about 10 a.m. since my Mah-Jongg game with the Wens should be finishing about them.  Ok!  See you in about a week when the wisdom of our fully-coordinated strategy sends me to Pyongyang to talk about how we are going to absorb you!”

In other words, the idea of Pyongyang coordinating attacks on South Korea via the Chinese leadership is absolute hokum.  North Korean generals do not call People’s Liberation Army headquarters in Beijing or Shenyang to get permission to shell what they regard as their sovereign territory.

Far more rational is JustRecently’s analysis of North Korean/Chinese connections, or Victor Cha’s Washington Post takedown of the PRC’s “ineffectual gestures…and meaningless appeals for calm” with with North Korea, or this exceedingly interesting German video report on Christianity as anti-North Korea propaganda on the DMZ (via Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, doch).

Post Statistics: //Word Count: 1,875//Number of Chinese-language sources meaningfully summarized or translated: 1//Number of related French or German language stories read or cited: 1//Number of brazenly wrong or factually unreliable published reports challenged: 2//Number of fictional dialogues or rap songs created within or based on the post: 1//Utility rating to think tank scholars (scale of 1-10): 3, assuming they do not have access to DoD closed-source translations of the Chinese press//Utility rating for informed undergraduate students: 6, as they should already have a grip on the high-hokum ratio of reports from inside the DPRK//Writing location: New York City, 125th St. and St. Nicholas Ave. (Harlem).

Preferred citation: Adam Cathcart, “Perils of the Non-Verified and Fictional: Just Another Week in News from North Korea,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, 4 January 2011,  <<>&gt;.

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  1. Since I presume it unlikely that a man harboring such a hitherto unforeseen scathing dislike of all NED-funded things would wilfully go so deep into a fairly unexciting piece on Kim Jong Eun at

    I bring you this quote;

    The source also said he considered the possibility of special distribution on Kim Jong Eun’s birthday to be low, and moved to dismiss some of the more excitable speculation over the derailed train story. “It is quite likely that the ‘train loaded with birthday presents for Kim Jong Eun’ which overturned in mid December or the request for rice instead of corn from China was for presents for officials of the Party and other organs on January 1st,” he explained.

    Well indeed. That’s a bit more like it. Although it does also represent a second verifiable source inside North Korea, so you should probably remove the italics from the above piece.

    The phrase “more excitable speculation” was my own personal form of low-key demonstration against the kind of nonsense that you allude to in your piece, by the way.

  2. Hooray! Another source. OK, will do as requested on the title and, appreciate your calling this to my attention. No sense in As for “hitherto unforeseen scathing dislike of all NED-funded things” I’m just saying I don’t know anything much at all about NED, apart from support for Liu Xiaobo and other dissidents in China…I think there was an NYT article a few months back about the “problem” of government-funding of source collection from North Korea. I’m just very very glad that Daily NK is open source, and would rather have all the speculation than nothing at all. As for NED, perhaps there is a scholarly monograph about the organization/fund which I will be able to chew on this spring so as to be a little more informed and a little less knee-jerk on such things. Thanks for the visit and the comment and the work on the Kim Jong Eun story, this is very much appreciated, Chris!

  3. “The outlet, Open Radio North Korea, appears to be funded by National Endowment for Democracy, and I think that you or I can buy airtime on it.”

    I’m done with criticizing you for criticizing the NED. A lot of its fundamental tenets rub me up all kinds of badly, too, but I think it also does some good work, notably around NK and Myanmar. That is probably all that can or should be said.

    However, I wonder whether “you or I can buy time on it” is a justification for questioning the legitimacy of Open Radio per se. While the (perfectly true, I am sure) assertion that if we had enough money/desire we could buy our way onto the Open Radio waves certainly mean we should not set out our stall by the opinion it serves or allow it (or, dear God, any of the other less-than-objective NGO radio providers) to form our opinions, the quality of their inside information is presumably a seperate issue.

  4. Re overloaded North Korean trains, two railfans who went on the Moscow-Pyongyang direct sleeping car in 2008 found that it carried more “luggage” than passengers. Traders would load goods on to the train without boarding themselves, so they presumably had associates waiting to take delivery at the other end. Presumably the sleeping car attendants (all five of them for one car) were being paid by the traders to make sure that nothing went missing on the way.

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