High-ranking North Korean diplomat Kim Yong Chol was identified attending an art performance alongside leader Kim Jong Un in the country’s state media on Sunday – two days after one of South Korea’s biggest newspapers said he had been banished and sentenced to hard labor and his deputy executed.
If true, it would have been one of the most stunning stories to come out of North Korea in some time. Kim Yong Chol, in particular, sat in the White House across from US President Donald Trump for talks little more than a year ago.
Analysts have speculated that some of the North Korean diplomats charged with US negotiations were in hot water after the latest round of talks between the two countries ended abruptly in Hanoi without an agreement.
But an invitation to join Kim Jong Un in public would likely not be extended to someone who had fallen out of favor.
Rodong Sinmun, a state-run North Korean newspaper, released an image that appeared to show Kim Yong Chol a few seats down from the leader. The man’s hands are covering his face, so it’s not totally clear that it is in fact him.
There was no mention of his deputy, Kim Hyok Chol.
The original report about the demise of the two diplomats was published by Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s most widely circulated newspaper, citing a single anonymous official inside North Korea. The reporter who wrote the story is a North Korean defector.
Experts quickly questioned the story’s veracity due to its sourcing. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said his country was looking into the reports.
None of that stopped the story from spreading like wildfire.
Within hours, it was picked up by media around the world, including CNN. Many outlets attempted to do their journalistic due diligence, pointing out that the story only relied on one anonymous source, and worked to contextualize the information – explaining that purges and reeducation sentences are not uncommon in North Korea, especially for foreign diplomats. It was also largely made clear that neither North Korea nor other governments confirmed the report and that anonymously sourced reports from South Korean media have previously been wrong.
“I hate to say it, but in this era plausible rumors of consequence are newsworthy – and this was a highly plausible claim,” said Van Jackson, a former Korea expert at the US Defense Department and current lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington.
“Kim’s surrounded himself with yes-men. He’s killed or removed 300-plus senior officials in six years. And he was misled about what was going to happen at the Hanoi summit. That makes the story plausible.”
People likely believed the story because it jived with the narrative that North Korea is a brutal place where Shakespearean palace intrigue meets the world’s biggest gulag system. It is, after all, a country accused of using a nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, kidnapping innocent people from across the globe and blowing up an airliner to derail rival South Korea’s 1988 Olympic Games.
“There’s enough crazy (and) extreme stuff going on in North Korea for us to consistently believe that these things are true,” said Chad O’Carroll, the CEO of the Korea Risk Group, which runs some of the world’s most respected North Korea specialist publications.
“At the same time, there are a healthy dose of stories that are just fiction.”
CNN has reached out to Chosun Ilbo seeking comment on the story.
The ‘purged’ soccer coach
Sometime in 2011 or 2012, Jean Lee saw an unlikely face at the airport in Pyongyang: Kim Jong Hun.
Kim Jong Hun was coach of the North Korean men’s soccer team which was embarrassed at the 2010 World Cup. They were reports of players and staff being publicly shamed for their defeat. Kim Jong Hun was reportedly punished for “betraying” Kim Jong Un, rumored to be forced to do hard labor and stripped of membership from the ruling Workers’ Party as punishment.
Lee covered the team’s journey as a correspondent for the Associated Press. She told CNN she saw Kim Jong Hun some months later – after his purported demise – while shuttling between Pyongyang and Seoul to open AP’s bureau in the North Korean capital.
Lee, who now studies the country as an academic at the Woodrow Wilson Center, confronted Kim Jong Hun with the rumor. He laughed, saying he had just been promoted – and the new role made him less publicly visible.
Kim Jong Hun’s case is not unusual. Other purported purge victims have reappeared or “come back from the dead,” including members of the ruling Kim family.
Hyon Song Wol might be the most famous recent case. Hyon, a singer in Kim Jong Un’s personally selected, all-female Moranbong Band and who was rumored to be his girlfriend, was executed by firing squad in 2013, according to a report in Chosun Ilbo. But she’s appeared in public numerous times since and was among the many North Koreans who traveled south for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Lee said the fact such stories keep surfacing also highlighted standards in South Korea’s cutthroat media landscape – especially the reliance on individual, unnamed sources. Chosun Ilbo has not corrected its story and it is still available on the news outlet’s website in English and Korean.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think the South Koreans have that level of ethical standards in their own journalism. And in this case, it was one anonymous source. It wasn’t explicitly identified how this person got that information and how the source would be in a position to know,” Lee said.
Silence from state media
Before Kim Yong Chol apparently reappeared in state media Sunday, he had not been mentioned by the country’s news for almost two months.
Such silence over a high-ranking official is unusual. For years, the intelligence analysts, academics and journalists who study North Korea have made up for the lack of independent reporting from inside the country by analyzing state media dispatches in detail.
That’s proven helpful for some pieces of information, like job appointments. North Korea does not announce high-level dismissals or appointments in most cases, but rather reveals them through mentions in official media, according to Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University.
But assuming the worst when someone is left out of state media is one of the dangers of reading the North Korean tea leaves too closely.
“That, unfortunately, is how a lot of intelligence is gathered. That’s where this comes from: a lack of information on the North Korean side and a huge kind of leap in assumptions on the reporting and intelligence side,” Lee added.
CNN’s Yoonjung Seo contributed reporting