After 20 days of absence, the proof of life for Kim Jong Un, from North Korea, finally arrived on May 2. North Korean state media released images of the leader who visited a fertilizer factory. Contrary to growing speculation by much of the international media and many observers in North Korea, Kim was clearly not on his deathbed.
Western journalists are not always adept at covering this secluded country, but the latest fiasco around Kim's supposedly imminent death has proved how eager they are to accept unconfirmed rumors as objective news and how badly they judge information about North Korea. .
It all started on April 20, when the news site Daily NK, run by North Korean defectors published a story that Kim had undergone heart surgery. Initially citing several sources, the site claimed that the North Korean leader "suffered from inflammation of the blood vessels surrounding the heart … but his condition worsened".
The daily NK often relies on anonymous informants in the North to publish critical articles about the regime, and its track record of accuracy is, at best, irregular. In this case, the English version of the article it was later edited to say "a cardiovascular procedure" instead of "cardiac surgery", and the editor made a correction that there were not several sources, but only one.
Within hours, CNN presented its own single-source piece, with the sensational headline, "US source: North Korean leader in grave danger after surgery." MSNBC anchor Katy Tur tweeted to her more than 700,000 followers: "North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is brain dead, according to two US officials." She called it a "CNN scoop" confirmed by NBC News.
CNN then revised your headline for "US monitoring intelligence that the North Korean leader is in grave danger after the surgery" and Tur apparently deleted his tweet, both conveying that the information was less than credible. But the cat was already out of the bag. In the next 11 days, all sorts of news outlets and websites around the world would join the game of guessing "Is Kim Jong Un really dead?" and "Who will be North Korea's next ruler?"
So great was the noise generated by the Western media that even the normally more reserved South Koreans were shaken, wondering if they would have missed anything, even if the country's National Security Council sustained that "there are currently no unusual developments in North Korea". Sometimes, "Kim Jong Un's death" even surpassed coronavirus in search rankings on major portal sites.
To be fair, the North Korean state contributed to the drama when Kim did not publicly respect his grandfather Kim Il Sung on his April 15 birthday for an unspecified reason. But, in retrospect, there was not even an ounce of concrete evidence that Kim Jong Un's health and the issue of succession deserved serious discussion.
This is not the first major Western media to go bankrupt over North Korea. In November 2018, the August New York Times held front page article entitled "In North Korea, missile bases suggest a major disappointment". Written by two reporters, including Pulitzer-winning correspondent David E Sanger, cited satellite imagery and a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to argue that North Korea continued to secretly develop missiles, violating June. 2018 Singapore Agreement between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.
But as Korea's longtime analyst Tim Shorrock wrote in your big drop of the play, the highlighted satellite photo was dated March 2018 – three months before Kim and Trump met in Singapore – and the missile bases presented as damning evidence of Kim's duplicity were known in South Korea for at least two years. Laugh, the CSIS report at the center of the article, there was even a warning that "some of the information used in preparing this study may prove to be incomplete or incorrect".
All of this, however, did not prevent the story from being spread by the excessive Western media, and the Times tweeted that it remained alongside the story, without elaboration.
I found that the Western media is quick to blame North Korea for its own bad reports, with the argument that the regime does not share much information. The CNN article still contains recognition in that sense: "Collecting information from North Korea is notoriously difficult … North Korea tightly controls any information around its leader." That's what many Western journalists in North Korea often say in self-defense.
Over coffee in downtown Seoul a few years ago, the then director of a major European news organization in Asia said the same to me: "North Korea is important. Shouldn't we at least try to report on it?"
That intention may be good, but does it justify the publication of half-truths or articles written with total ignorance? Again in June 2018, at the press conference after the Singapore summit, Trump commented that the US and South Korea "will stop the war games", sparking a wave of criticism in the Western media that he despised South Korea, which was "caught by surprise" and it was supposed to worried about the ad.
This reading of Seoul's position was totally wrong, as most of these Western reporters operate without a deep understanding of regional politics. The South Korean government, under President Moon Jae-in, has taken the position that it is important to reduce the chances of military confrontations – including limiting military exercises – to promote inter-Korean peace. Who knows, I would never say that suspending war games would worry Seoul.
In my five years on the English-language media scene, I have never met a Western reporter covering the Korean peninsula who could speak Korean fluently. It may be debatable whether a skill in a foreign language is essential when reporting abroad, but, in the context of North Korea's coverage, not speaking Korean means taking qualified non-English experts out of the global conversation – of whom there are many in Korea southern .
Instead, their seats are taken by convenient English-speaking experts, whose CVs reveal that most of them lack knowledge related to North Korea; or by defectors whose suitability as policy commentators in Pyongyang or Kim's mood is compromised by inexperience or obvious political motives.
If the Western media had genuinely tried to engage with reputable North Korean experts in the south, many exaggerated rumors about the regime would not have received the attention they receive.
For more than two weeks now, several respected South Korean researchers, including Cheong Seong-Chang at the Sejong Institute, have warned against Kim's public absence.
On April 17, Cheong wrote in his widely-read newsletter: "Although there may be a temporary problem in the health or personal circumstances of President Kim Jong Un … the possibility of an emergency in the North is extremely unlikely".
And that was really the case.
The opinions expressed in this article are the property of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.