The unfounded rumor that the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, was assassinated in Beijing, China on Friday reflects the overwhelming power and influence of unregulated social media networks (even in repressive China); and also the mysterious and isolated nature of North Korea (a country that rarely deals in reality and truth).
The rumor of Jong-un’s death, which spread like wildfire on the Chinese Twitter-like Sina Weibo site, was somewhat believable specifically because of North Korea’s bizarre, unpredictable and ugly history.
Perusing various websites on Saturday morning, western news outlets like CNN and BBC debunked the rumor. CNN reported that intelligence officials in Washington “have been looking into such rumors for more than a week,” adding they have no credible evidence to confirm Jong-un’s sudden demise.
However, from what I have seen, North Asian media has given the sensational rumors scant coverage.
South Korean Global TV dutifully noted that rumors of the young leader’s passing were groundless, also citing CNN, but added that the rumor may have been a calculated effort to destabilize South Korea’s economy by suggesting chaos within the borders of its northern enemy. In addition, Global TV noted, rumors of the death of head of state often suggest a lack of confidence in that leader.
I could find no mention of Jong-un’s death in either Chinese or even Japanese media, at least on Saturday morning (New York time).
Naturally, the state-controlled North Korean News Agency (KCNA) made no mention of it at all. The only reference to Jong-un was a claim that an organization in the UK, something called, The British Association for the Study of Songun Policy, praised Kim Jong-un in an article a few weeks ago.
It is also unclear where exactly Kim Jong-un is.
Nonetheless, one has to wonder why the Chinese government allowed the rumor to spread? They could have easily shut down the Weibo service as soon as the reports of Jong-un’s death found traction among micro-bloggers.
A report published in Diplomat.com by Adam Cathcart, an assistant professor of Chinese history at Pacific Lutheran University and editor of SinoNK.com, suggests that perhaps this indicates a serious strain in China’s relations with North Korea.
“China has indicated it wants Kim Jong-un to relax the country’s militarism and open up to investment under Chinese protection,” Cathcart wrote. “And the fact is he’s not doing that.”
Moreover, there is the issue of Kim Jong-nam, Jong-un’s brother who has reportedly criticized him and often travels freely around China.
“On the Chinese side, there doesn’t appear to have been any real effort to limit Kim Jong-nam’s movements,” Cathcart added.
“Indeed, officials seem happy with [Jong-nam] posing as the possible face of reform. Why? The Chinese decided after the second North Korean nuclear test that the gloves would come off in public discussions of the Kim family and, while some concessions were made at delicate times (such as after Kim Jong-il’s death), they seem in no mood to muffle Kim Jong-nam.”