When it comes to North Korea, there are an awful lot of hypotheses floating about the information spectrum these days. Whether or not these all have been encouraged, tacitly or otherwise, by the South Korean state (undercutting Kimist legitimacy) or by the North Korean state (as a means of changing the subject from, say, human rights abuses), or are mainly driven by cutthroat competition in the online journalism sector, is anyone’s guess.
But two things are for certain: 1) There are a lot of rumors floating around and 2) Most of them are probably wrong, or, at the very least, are mutually exclusive with other rumors. Thus, as a somewhat insouciant way of setting the stage for tomorrow’s media coverage of North Korea (the DPRK) as Kim Jong-un reappears or fails to show up, it could be a good time to lay out the choices so that you, too, can play ‘North Korea Misinformation Bingo.’
If five of your hypotheses are proven false in physical sequence on the board, you win! Or, if being correct is important to you, you lose. Or something like that. Actually I don’t know how to play bingo.
Presenting the theories:
- Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong-un, is in control of the country
- Kim Jong-un is a puppet; Hwang Pyong-so and his colleagues in the Organization and Guidance Department are in control of the country
- Kim Jong-un is in control of the country
- Kim Jong-un has gout
- Kim Jong-un injured himself while exercising
- Kim Jong-un is a cheese addict
- Kim Jong-un is under house arrest
- Kim Jong-un will attend midnight services at the mausoleum
- Kim Jong-un is in Wonsan
- Kim Jong-un is getting ready for a state visit to China
- Kim Jong-un is getting ready for a state visit to Mongolia
- Choe Ryong-hae was purged
- Choe Ryong-hae remains powerful
- The musicians of the Unhasu Orchestra were executed after making pornography
- Jang Song-taek was executed by hungry dogs
- Jang Song-taek was executed because he wrote a love letter to the Chinese Communist Party
- Kim Jong-un loves Hitler
- Chinese troops are moving into North Korea
- North Korea is about to do a fourth nuclear test
- North Korea is in the process of opening up its economy
- North Korea is going to complete its report on Japanese abductions
- North Korea has admitted it has gulags
- North Korea is going to release at least one American hostage soon
- Kim Jong-nam is interested in returning from a Macau casino to run the country
- Kim Jong-il died in 2006
- Kim Jong-il died in 2011
- Kim Jong-il isn’t actually dead
How did you do? Perhaps we will need a few years to sort this out and arrive at a proper score.
Naturally any prediction or hypothesis comes with a certain amount of risk, risk which is assumed not by the North Korean people — who are already effectively the eternal butt of the postmodern joke, being engaged in ‘risky business’ by living in a country with high levels of childhood stunting — but for the individuals making the claims. Or perhaps there is no risk at all; perhaps one can in fact be wrong regularly about North Korea and continue to have a voice in perpetuity, irrespective of whether one is a defector or not.
There is obviously a certain danger in focusing attention on the community who does much of the analysis, such as it is, I mean of course the ‘North Korea watchers’ (i.e., the ones getting published or who mass media outlets decide deserve quoting). The obvious problem with looking at this group is that the main subject really ought to be North Korea itself, the country’s system, its people, its history, its foreign relations, etc. Until North Korean readers are allowed onto the Internet and into Western bibliographies en masse and can start staring and writing back, the community could probably stand to be somewhat more self-correcting. Social media has certainly enabled a certain level of instantaneous critique, but the fragmentation of the debate into microblog entries, Facebook snark, and unedited blog posts doesn’t always lead to progress. Andrei Lankov seems to have figured this out. For the rest of us, one longs for a few new big articles or books that go properly head-to-head on some of the debates in question — presumably these are in the works, or ought to be. There is nothing like a blank space of 10 or 12,000 words with sixty or seventy footnotes with the promise of a battery of proper peer review to explain what you really mean.
In the meantime, there are all kinds of individual and complicated narratives in and about North Korea that deserve unpacking — and they don’t all fit neatly into little binaries, and they aren’t all entertaining or just something to be used for ‘click-bait.’ Someday a person is going to write a proper study of North Korea memes in our time; even as a great deal of extremely serious empirical work continues to be done, the number of times that scholars who make themselves available to media are called upon to essentially firefight against misinformation is, well, appalling. Or profitable. Depending on your point of view.
I suppose at the end of the day, we all have to learn to be forgiving when people we otherwise respect as serious scholars or analysts are incorrect in their assumptions or get overly touchy about being called out or challenged — challenged not so much for having a point of view, but for not explaining in detail why they believe it. And we also need to be ready to learn from one another when we are incorrect. As I recently told a couple of smart colleagues who thought I had mischaracterized the leadership of an important North Korean governing body, ‘Berate me, I’m yours.’ And while I wasn’t happy about being imprecise with my own writing, I think that I meant it when I thanked them both for their critiques.
Finally, while this post is very much a ‘break in voice’ for me as an academic, and as much as I think the internet is already overly chock-full of opinionated irony and less actual information than there ought to be, I’ve decided to put it out there anyway, as a response to the craziness, as a break from my own ‘revise and resubmit’ mania for a really long co-authored peer-reviewed journal article, and (to be fully transparent) to get a few more random clicks on my unfunded website via these somewhat cynical keywords, many of which are misinformation themselves: ‘China is in control of North Korea’ ‘North Korea’ ‘North Korea rumours’ ‘Kim Jong-un’s sister’ ‘Kim Jong-un’s sister is in control of North Korea’ ‘North Korea cheese addiction’ ‘Kim Jong-un is in Wonsan’ ‘Kim Jong-un disappearance’ ‘OGD’ ‘OGD in control of North Korea’ ‘Kim Jong-un coup’ ‘coup in North Korea’ ‘cult of personality’ ‘Kim Jong-il is still alive’ ‘Kim Jong-un golf cart’ ‘Kim Jong-un weight gain’ ‘Kim Jong-un BMI’ ‘North Korea Misinformation Bingo’ and, yes, ‘North Korea clickbait.’