North Korea

North Korea, Gullible Reporters, and a General Theory of Rumors

Kim Jong-Un did not feed his uncle to 120 dogs. Why did so many people believe he did?

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Not a real person.

Last week yet another strange story from North Korea shot across the media: Dictator Kim Jong-Un had allegedly executed his uncle by feeding him alive to 120 fierce dogs. The story was quickly debunked—while Kim had undeniably had his uncle purged and killed, the dogs had been the invention of a Chinese satirist. Even before the story's origins had been uncovered, skeptics were pointing out reasons to think the tale was probably untrue.

All of which raises the question: Why did so many outlets run with such a thinly sourced and dubious story in the first place? Max Fisher offers some ideas:

A friend who's covered North Korea for several years and has visited the country, Isaac Stone Fish, now of Foreign Policy, once joked to me that as an American journalist you can write almost anything you want about North Korea and people will just accept it. Call it the Stone Fish Theory of North Korea coverage. We know so little about what really happens inside the country, and especially inside the leader's head, that very little is disprovable. But the things we do know are often so bizarre that just about anything can seem possible….

As I wrote in 2012 when the U.S. media were briefly aflame with nonsensical rumors that Kim had been assassinated in Beijing, the images out of the country are so bizarre and hard information so scant that there's little to prevent our imaginations from running wild. We are ready to believe anything.

Special Pyongyang edition.

Add the sort of cultural barriers at work when Westerners do not recognize the fingerprints of a Chinese satirist—the flipside of those Chinese journalists who unwittingly repeat spoofs from The Onion—and I think Fisher has a pretty compelling theory. Indeed, I think you can extend this past the Korean example to a general thesis about rumors:

1. The less transparent a society, subculture, institution, or individual is, the more people will believe weird stories about it.

2. The more strange things about a society, subculture, institution, or individual are already known to be true, the more people will believe still weirder stories about it.

3. If you combine secrecy with strangeness, the weird tales will multiply.

If you plotted that as a chart, Kim's kingdom would occupy the point in the upper right-hand corner, where both secrecy and strangeness max out. When reading reports about North Korea, you should adjust your BS detector accordingly.

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  1. You mean that ‘hotel’ they’ve almost finished isn’t an arcology which the Nork hopes to launch it’s key population (and an assortment of requisite peasants) into space to get away from the south?

  2. Make sure you get your North Korea news fromthe official source.

    1. “Heroic Application of Juche philosophy increases millet yields by 25%.”

      1. There are too many gems to choose one.

        DPRK News Service ?@DPRK_News 28 Dec
        Eagles perch at statue of Kim Il-Sung, on anniversary of Great Leader’s “Commentaries on Application of Juche to Thermodynamics”.
        Expand

        DPRK News Service ?@DPRK_News 27 Dec
        Robot tortoise perfected by Kim Il-Sung University engineers!
        Expand Reply Retweet Favorite More

        DPRK News Service ?@DPRK_News 27 Dec
        Drunken U.S. women stab husbands for lack of beer. Korean Mother’s League promises 100,000 soldiers for Juche Idea! http://bit.ly/KaSVJR
        Expand

        1. Effigy of war criminal Douglas MacArthur hung and burnt, in ceremony of ideological significance

          .

          1. Aww, they remembered us.

          2. Effigy of war criminal Douglas MacArthur hung and burnt, in ceremony of ideological significance.

            Choshan University professors discover previously unknown facts concerning swine.

            U.S. midgets, awed by technology of all-conquering Korean People’s Air Force, announce abandonment of air base at Okinawa.

            1. We had an all-dwarf unit in Okinawa?!

              Why didn’t anyone tell me?

              1. In an army’s eyes, all dwarves are bastards.

            2. Chongjin Medical University physicians apply Juche Idea in successful treatment of rickets.

              1. Wouldn’t the more salient headline be “Scientist extracts Vitamin D from ideology”

              2. I liked that one too. Presumably it means that the propagandist thinks the rest of the world, and the US in particular, is riddled with rickets. Here’s a charming documentary about Kim Jong Il curing cataracts.

                1. The people living in NK have been told from earliest childhood that NK is by far the best place on earth to live, and the rest of the earth is a living hell.

                  And there’s NO ONE to contradict that massive lie, other than the hellish evidence of their daily lives, which if they want to live they have to engage in Orwellian doublethink and pretend is all wonderful.

      2. Sadly, we planted lentils.

        1. + 1 bag of government bulger.

    2. DPRK News Service ?@DPRK_News 5 Jan
      Nigerian dignitaries offer gifts of cattle roses, and assault weapons at International Friendship Exhibition Hall.
      Expand

      Holy fuck, I need some Nigerian friends.

      1. I could forward you the correspondence from a prince trying to get out of the country.

      2. Running low on cattle roses?

        1. Uh… What are cattle roses?

    3. comedy gold:

      Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un commends KPA fisheries and fish for defending socialism.

  3. Or it could be that the story didn’t really have the elements of satire. It’s kind of like how the Onion now reports sad truths in reverse.

  4. Does that mean that the meth thingy isn’t true either?

    1. There has been too much corroboration of that, I think.

  5. On a related note, we – as I assume most boys in America – were told that Asian girls’ cootchies were horizontal and not vertical in structure (to match the eyes if yer not following). Of course, depending on age, most of us were disbelieving and/or skeptical.

    Then, in the mid-70s, I think it was Penthouse that came out with a photo spread with a retouched Asian girl who had a slanting slit!

    My round eyes got rounder and that set my knowledge of ethnic-gender anatomy a few years behind…

    1. I never heard that such rumors had existed prior to 2013. I’m still trying to figure out why it’d fool anyone.

      1. I had never heard of that rumor, period.

        1. The Dickies’ Leonard always uses that line as the intro to (I’m Stuck In A Pagoda With) Tricia Toyota.

          1. I heard that rumor growing up, in an area with very few Asians to offer evidence to the contrary.

            The only thing different about Asian pussy is the straight pubic hair and the wonderful scent.

            1. Smells like soy sauce?

            2. No Asians where I grew up either. Just one adopted boy in town.

        2. I only heard about it from Deadwood. There’s an episode where two pimps try to sell Chinese prostitutes to all the white men in town.

    2. Great Moments in H&R History:

      “slant slit”

      It is from back in the pre-threading days so you have to scroll down. joe from Lowell stalks for 3 days across multiple posts accusing said commenter of racism

      1. People on the internet were that sensitive only 6 years ago??

        1. H&R was that liberal/progressive 6 years ago.

  6. 1. The less transparent a society, subculture, institution, or individual is, the more people will believe weird stories about it.

    2. The more strange things about a society, subculture, institution, or individual are already known to be true, the more people will believe still weirder stories about it.

    3. If you combine secrecy with strangeness, the weird tales will multiply.

    This explains why the tinfoil-hat brigade will believe anything about government.

  7. This is a regime that incarcerates a criminal’s family (to three generations, I think) to life in a gulag, even if the rest of the family did nothing wrong. It’s a country that couldn’t give a crap if millions of its people starve.

    When the facts are this insane, there’s a tendency to believe just about any other insane story from North Korea. It’s the default mode.

    1. Hey, the ten commandments, as posted on a plaque at the Chester County (PA) Courthouse says that the iniquities of the fathers shall be visited on the third and fourth generation. If punishing the unborn innocent is o.k. by God, then why not by Kim???

      1. It’s just been revoked:

        Ezekiel:
        19 Yet say ye, Why? doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father? When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live.

        20 The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

        – KJV

  8. Sadbeard’s Guide to Communism

    Communism had a couple of salient features.

    One is that it was a system of violent authoritarian government in which political dissent was ruthlessly crushed. The practical instantiation of this violence ranges from extreme episodes (Holodomor, Yezhovshchina) to the more banal ones depicted in a film like The Lives of Others.

    The other is that the state controlled essentially all aspects of economic life.

    Does he realize that point two results in point one?

    [M]y (Twitter) feed has been full for days of grass-roots conservatives talking about how communism was terrible. And communism was terrible! Terrible largely because it wasn’t a make-work jobs program, it was a brutal system of coercion and violence. The worst thing you could possibly say about the Myerson Agenda is that this mix of policies might slow the rate of economic growth. That’s always a concern with proposed economic reforms and the stuff of everyday political debate.

    But it does an enormous disservice to the hundreds of millions of people who suffered enormously under communism (and to the tens of millions still living in North Korea or Cuba) to treat the whole thing as some kind of misguided social welfare scheme where handouts and onerous regulations slowed the economic growth rate.

    Um, Lenin and Stalin promised equality and security, not violence and state terror.

    1. Does he realize that point two results in point one?

      But, but, but…. intentions!

    2. The worst thing you could possibly say about the Myerson Agenda is that this mix of policies might slow the rate of economic growth.

      Sadbeard has a poor imagination. SugarFree, what’s the worst thing you could say about the Myerson Agenda?

      1. It does to the economy what Plopper wants to do to a 6-year-old.

        1. The fuck is Plopper?

          1. Some troll that freaks out over age of consent laws and stalks you if you disagree with him. He’s been around under a few different handles.

            Here’s a recent sample.

    3. Ta-Nesi Coates has a similarly stupid article where he talks about how he stopped reading a book about the Holodomor because it hurt his feelings. What amazed me the most is that this presumably highly degreed guy seems to have never learned that Stalin was a bad dude.

      I’d like to know why there’s such a sudden uptick in these stupid articles about how communism is kewl. Quick, send Suder-Man to infiltrate journolist and report back.

      1. The media types tend to get each other thinking about the same shit all the time because of the cross-pollination of the internet.

        1. I think it’s some of that, but the high-profile stuff stinks of marching orders.

          You’d think that they’d be smart enough to space it out to at least avoid suspicion.

          1. Do you actually think SadBeard or Coates is smart enough to even understand if they’ve been given marching orders?

            1. I think that’s all SadBeard understands. He doesn’t want daddy to be mad at him again and hide his My Little Pony collection as a punishment.

            2. More like talking points, but sure.

              I remember, when running for political office, being hustled into a room with a bunch of other candidates and being told by some party apparatchik that they would help us out by giving us all the talking points we needed.

              I thought at the time about telling them to fuck off and then walking out, but in retrospect sticking around to get the full flavor of TEAM BE RULED ickiness was useful and instructive.

              Call it an unintended teaching moment.

      2. What amazed me the most is that this presumably highly degreed guy seems to have never learned that Stalin was a bad dude.

        Highly degreed? He left Howard University without getting the required credits for a history degree.

        He clearly has no understanding of the things he’s asked to write about.

        Examples? Here is Ta Nehesi Coates on Eric Hobsbawm. The first comment is by a reader.

        When I think of Hobsbawm’s “Age of…” series, though, I tend to exclude 4. He was a 19th-century specialist, and as he acknowledes in the preface to “Age of extremes”, “my own knowledge [of 20th century history/historiography] is casual and patchy”. A bigger problem was arguably that, as Hobsbawm admitted in “Interesting Times” (2002), “To this day, I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness”.
        11 ?Reply?Share ?
        Avatar
        Ta-Nehisi Coates Mod rocinante ? 5 months ago

        A bigger problem was arguably that, as Hobsbawm admitted in “Interesting Times” (2002), “To this day, I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness”

        See I read that, and I see a deeply appealing intellect. Who doesn’t have these sorts of vulnerabilities?

        He’s arguing it’s okay to be pro-Soviet Union as late as 2002 when Hobsbawm wrote those lines

    4. This is as far as I got in the comments.

      GrizzlyStats 39 minutes ago
      Weird to include Cuba in the same category as North Korea. The horrors described in NK and Stalinist russia aren’t found in Cuba, and although Cuba has a lot of poverty, and a lot of problems, it’s an open debate as to whether the people of Cuba are a whole lot worst off than non-communist Caribbean nations like Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua or even the Dominican Republic.

      FlagShare

      1. I guess that piece of shit never heard about the War Against the Bandits and the execution of homosexuals that were notable elements of the first decade of Castro’s rule.

        1. These idiots don’t know anything about Cuba. All they know is Che and literacy and health care and ball and good and rape.

      2. Cuba was a lot better off than those countries when the communists took over

    5. “Make everything owned by everyone” and “guaranteed work for all” are not mere regulations that would, at worst, slow down the economy. For fuck’s sake.

  9. North Korea is definitely super-secretive and has lots of strange stories, but I think the primary reason the death by dogs story had legs is because of Kim’s personal and family reputation more than anything else. When you are from a line of completely wacked out dictator narcissists with known penchants for doing really weird stuff, most stories about you will be believed, especially if it’s been happening through multiple generations.

    1. Kim’s personal and family reputation

      Doesn’t that fall under the “strange stories” category?

      1. Sure, I’m merely trying to point out that Kim is a very special case that I would say lends more people to believing really crazy shit. If someone said that, say, Ahmadinejad did the same thing, do you think people would be as likely to believe it?

        1. They wouldn’t, because Kim and North Korea are much further along the “strange stories” axis than Ahmadinejad and Iran. And, for that matter, much further along the “closed society” axis.

          1. Behind the Bamboo Curtain.

  10. Move along, comrades !

    Nothing to see here .

    The running dogs were shot while trying to escape.

  11. We were fools to believe that, in a country like North Korea, there were that many dogs still alive and uneaten.

  12. The story was quickly debunked?while Kim had undeniably had his uncle purged and killed, the dogs had been the invention of a Chinese satirist.

    Satire. One barely noticeable tragic death among millions at the hands of totalitarian communism.

  13. Okay, good. Maybe Un is only Hollywood crazy after all. Like dear old Dad.

  14. Jesse should be congratulated for find that portrait of Warty, er…magazine cover.

    1. Oh please. My tits are way better than that.

  15. Washington Monthly on the Myerson Agenda.

    Let me pick out a particularly idiotic point from this dumb article:

    Myerson’s program may or may not be, in the words of Michael Harrington, “the left wing of the possible” ? at least not yet. They are too visionary for that. But that’s not to say that what he envisions does not exist in the world, and could never exist here. The reforms he outlines are your basic social democracy ? you know, society as it exists in uncivilized hellholes like Denmark and Sweden ? spiced with some classic American populism.

    Really? Sweden and Denmark have no personal property and all the land is held by the state? You sure about that? They have 100% employment?

    Cool story, bro.

    1. That’s the game.

      “Let’s start out with outlandish proposals that smack of Stalin and Mao, but we’ll never tell them that we’d be willing to settle for Denmark.”

    2. Well, you at least have to admit that Myerson got what he wanted: he’s getting a good 15 minutes of Internet fame and respect, and all he had to do was write a breathtakingly stupid article.

  16. I wrote a blog post a long time ago (likely gone now for various reasons outside of wayback machine or whatever) that posited the idea that all international news was more prone to error than domestic, simply because any incorrect reporting on international news has a very small contingent of people who care enough to mention/complain/fix it.

    This is the same basic reason people everywhere think they really, really understand people from other countries but have very little real understanding (how Americans think about their understanding of Europeans and vice versa for instance).

    Not only is accurate information difficult to find, but spouting stupid crap about international politics isn’t likely to get fixed by your friends at the bar anymore than an idiotic article written in Time is likely to get fixed either.

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