Ever since the debut of Pyongyang’s nuclear warhead, a fog of war shrouded over the Korean peninsula, so alarming and dramatic the situation, that some panicked over a second Korean War or even a third world war. Even after the latest test launch over Japan, the only thing escalating seems to be the President’s vocabulary while his stance on North-Korea remained unclear. On one hand, he threatened to ‘absolutely destroy’ North Korea, on the other hand, he commented that ‘military option is not our first choice’, all while his olive branch to meet with Kim Jong-un remains unretracted. On the internet, as most were spoiled by information, news articles have to be written even though there isn’t anything to write about. Though the media cover speeches and prods against Pyongyang by the minutes, the situation on the Korean Peninsula may not be as volatile as it seems. With the benefit of hindsight, it is apparent that most signs of North Korea heating up on the media are, at best, exaggerated and, at worst, unfounded.
On 12th of April, according to Pravda, Kim Jong-un had ‘ordered 25 percent of Pyongyang residents to leave the city immediately‘. The Russian article spread like wildfire and was immediately picked up by outlets around the world. Reportedly, as “Pyongyang’s bomb shelters will not be able to accommodate the entire population, 600,000 people – mostly individuals with criminal records – will have to leave Pyongyang to let others use bomb shelters”.
A colleague of mine posted in Pyongyang found that the locals knew nothing of such evacuation and tourists were received as usual. It is most likely that Pravda got words from an insider, with government guidelines of what to do in case of a war, yet somehow it was spun into an enacted order in the editing room.
Almost at the same time, China’s news outlets claimed that Air China has suspended its route from Beijing to Pyongyang due to ‘critical situation’. Being the only other airline that flies to North Korea, and a major source of foreign revenue, it would have been big news if the cancellation itself was not announced several months before the crisis and was a commercial decision based on diminished traffic. Even if the suspension is a sign of Beijing compliance with UN’s sanctions (which indicates more of Beijing’s stance than the severity of the general circumstances), Chinese tourist can travel to North Korea via other means.
So why is North Korea so prone to fake news? Other its hostility towards international media and the latter’s predatory appetite for click baits, the recent political climate in the US and China contributed to the media bias against Pyongyang as well.
1: Trump’s administration seldom plays by the book, nor can his rationale be deduced via rationality. Without any other points of references, commentators resorted to trivial gossips to make some sort of sense of it all.
2: To Beijing, international politics is an imperfect substitute for discussions on internal politics and a tool to influence public opinion. Under Beijing’s silent approval and triggered by Kim’s public demonstration of his nuclear program, coverage of North Korea exploded as if it was on the brink of upheaval.
America, however, stands heads and shoulders above China and Russia in terms of fake news as they are freshly baked by the president himself. Claiming that an ‘armada’ was on its way to North Korea in April 2017 (corroborated by the Pacific Command, which stated that the Carl Vinson carrier strike group was on its way as well), he caused general unease among North-east Asia. After all, the Carl Vinson group had just completed a joint exercise with Japan and South Korea, and should have been on its way to Australia for training. Turning back to the Sea of Japan would be a very rare sight. On the 17th of April, the South Korean press another bombshell was dropped by the Korean Herald: The Carl Vinson would rendezvous with the Reagan and Nimitz strike groups at the Peninsula on the 25th.
At the same time, however, it was revealed that Carl Vinson would only head for North Korea after completing its training with Australia. The USS Reagan is still in its Japanese base and Nimitz was all the way near the coast of US. When Donald Trump threatened Pyongyang with an approaching armada, his navy was not prepared nor capable to launch a full-on campaign in the peninsula.
The white house later denied being misleading about the whereabouts of Carl Vinson and some contended that it was a ‘calculated misdirection’ to pressure Beijing into action. In South Korea, the prevailing opinion was that it was a smokescreen to cover up the installation of THAAD in the region. As these conjectures are seldom provable, their soundness is their only measurable merits.
If we cannot trust the media, how else can we steal a glimpse of the situation in Pyongyang?
- Evacuations of nationals, especially that of China, will be a telling sign of a North Korea ready for war.
- Travel alerts from nations that are not openly hostile towards the regime indicate, to a certain degree, the prospect of open conflict.
- If the United States is about to launch a pre-emptive strike to Pyongyang, Japan and South Korea, her faithful allies, would certainly be notified beforehand. Should there be any irregular activities in their official organ, say a sudden cessation of regular coverage on Pyongyang, then their silence speaks volumes.