The surprise news set off a predictable wildfire of speculation and rumors south of the border.
Almost as soon as North Korea announced this week that its army chief had been dismissed due to “illness,” the aggressive South Korean media went into hyperdrive. By Friday a newspaper, citing “unconfirmed intelligence reports,” said Ri Yong-ho may have been wounded or killed in a blaze of gunfire when soldiers loyal to him resisted an armed attempt to detain him. So which is it — illness or a gun battle? Perhaps neither. North Korea watchers are skeptical of the illness claim, but even an unnamed government official cited in the South Korean account said the firefight “has still not been 100 percent confirmed.”
This is what happens when insatiably curious journalists in Seoul are starved for information about their tight-lipped, isolated rival to the north.
Many seemingly over-the-top news stories cite anonymous government or intelligence officials, North Korean defectors claiming to have sources in their former homeland or simply unexplained, unnamed “sources.” Few say where they get their information and many reports turn out to be wrong.
“The less we know about a country, the more rumors we tend to create about it,” said Kim Byeong-jo, a North Korea professor at the Korea National Defense University in Seoul. “When curiosity is especially strong, rumors grow more sensational ... Imagination takes over where facts are scarce and sources are unclear.”
North Korea has yet to provide details about Ri’s health or his future plans and it is still unclear what actually happened.
The capital, Pyongyang, portrayed a peaceful handover to new military chief Hyon Yong-chol. Soldiers celebrated in the streets with choreographed dances on Thursday after the announcement of Hyon’s new role and the promotion of young new leader Kim Jong-un to marshal.
North Korean officials have disappeared under chilling circumstances before, but the reports of their fates are often based on murky sources.
Amnesty International, citing “unconfirmed reports,” said earlier this year that state security officials had detained more than 200 officials in an effort to consolidate Kim Jong-un’s power before he became leader. The rights group cited more “unconfirmed reports” that 30 North Korean officials involved in talks with South Korea were “executed by firing squad or killed in staged traffic accidents.”
Many reports end up being false. A prominent example ran as a stand-alone special edition of the conservative South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo in 1986.
In what it called a “world exclusive,” the paper announced that Kim Il-sung, the current leader’s grandfather and the revered founder of the country, was shot dead on a train near the border with South Korea. A day later, Kim Il-sung was seen greeting a visiting official at Pyongyang’s airport; he died in 1994.
In February, rumors that Kim Jong-un had been assassinated in North Korea’s embassy in Beijing sparked a frenzy of speculation. AP journalists happened to be at the embassy at the time Kim Jong-un was said to have been killed and saw nothing unusual at the facility.
Friday’s reports on Ri were as dramatic as they were murky: Chosun Ilbo reported that 20 to 30 soldiers had died in a gunfight when Ri’s bodyguards resisted soldiers sent to isolate him. The report quoted a source as saying that the possibility of Ri being wounded or killed in the gunfight could not be ruled out.