The North Korea-watching community is currently divided about a report in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo alleging a purge of several North Korean diplomats involved in the Hanoi summit, which collapsed without a much-touted nuclear deal. According to newspaper report, Pyongyang’s special envoy to the US, Kim Hyok Chol, and other foreign ministry officials were executed, and North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator with Washington, Kim Yong Chol, was sentenced to hard labour for failing to judge the US stance during the Hanoi summit.

This is far from the only disagreement for close observers of North Korea. Several weeks earlier, the community was also split over the impact of sanctions on North Korea’s economy. On the one hand, North Korea is apparently suffering from one of the worst food crises in the recent years due to sanctions prohibiting oil-based inputs for agricultural production. Yet on the other hand, North Korea’s economy is viewed to be resilient enough to keep rice prices and gasoline prices stable and affordable.

Unverified reports often spread quickly because for a Western audience there is a common perception of the North as a poor pariah state.

These contradicting and ambiguous reports reflect the difficulty of analysing North Korea. The huge amount of interest in the Hermit Kingdom from the outside world makes every bit of information coming out of the country, whether verified or not, a source of endless curiosity. While the problem of unverified reports typically seems to minimal and temporary – because this would not be the first time South Korean press has wrongly reportedly about North Korea’s domestic issues – the impact of such ambiguity in reinforcing the image of North Korea as a poverty-stricken and paranoid state does do long-term harm in efforts to understand the country.

Unverified reports often spread quickly because for a Western audience there is a common perception of the North as a poor pariah state and the media has a penchant to report stories that fit such a view. Everyday Americans have little knowledge of North Korea, for example, except the regularly repeated image of Pyongyang as a nuclear-armed dynastic dictatorship. This makes news stories covering these issues more attractive and leads them to be featured more often on social media. Given the human tendency to look for information that supports existing beliefs rather than breaking new ground (confirmation bias), unverified news that fit with the common audience’s perception of North Korea typically generates more interest than does news about North Korea’s growing private economy, for instance, or debunking its urban legends.

This mixture of both unverified and credible reports on North Korea blurs the line between caricature and scholarship, and impedes a genuine assessment of Pyongyang’s intentions and the US North Korea policy.

Public transport, Pyongyang, September 2018 (Photo: Alexander Demianchuk via Getty)

To take an example, news stories that rely on sources from the North Korean government, which blames international sanctions for the ongoing food shortage, risk ignoring the reality that North Korea’s struggle with food has been constant and the shortage has not yet reached a crisis level. But because such a story fits the general perception of a sanctions-hit North Korean population, it will often receive more attention and lead to calls to send humanitarian aid. And in the context of US and South Korean efforts to strike a balance between humanitarian aid and sanctions, such reports can lead to pressure to make what is really a false choice – relax sanctions or deny the North Korean population basic human needs.

If North Korean is overstating the food shortage to get sanctions lifted, Washington and Seoul need to be wary, and carefully assess the efficiency of sanctions in changing North Korea’s behaviour regarding its nuclear program.

Another example is news stories about North Korea’s purges. Such reports have long attracted huge attention due to their emphasis on the North as a Stalinist state. However, these purge stories are generally false.

While it is true that North Korea is a dictatorship, Kim may not have an unlimited power as commonly portrayed. Unverified news stories about Kim Jong-un purging his subordinates, regardless of their ranks, can create a misperception that Kim’s power is unchecked and lead to a dangerous assumption that dealing with Kim alone can lead to North Korea’s denuclearisation. However, just as the old saying goes that “all politics is local,” Kim has an audience he must pay attention to, making it important to look beyond Kim to better gauge North Korea’s intentions.

While it takes lots of effort to overcome confirmation bias, it is important to distinguish reliable and logical reports from unverified ones. Stories relying on one source should be read with caution for the information cannot be independently confirmed. North Korean officials can disappear from the scene for many reasons, not only purges, so the first conclusion should not be that they have been executed or sent to labour camps. Similarly, stories on the state of North Korea’s economy should be backed up with data on exchange rates and local prices instead of relying on government statements.

Although North Korea is a hard case for intelligence, this should not mean a trade-off of credibility for more clicks on stories.