Grapple: a fog of fake and shoddy news surrounds North Korea

Is the United States on the verge of war with North Korea? Is a U.S. Naval fleet steaming at full speed toward the coast of the so-called hermit kingdom, with militaristic resolve? Headlines in recent weeks paint the two nuclear powers on a collision course, with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un raising the spectre of a missile launch and the United States apparantly gearing up for battle.

But, hold the presses, that American aircraft carrier never got near North Korea, and the communist nation’s nuclear program appears far from capable of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile with range sufficient to threaten the homeland.

Most revealing in Tuesday’s about face was the revelation that, while U.S. news media were widely reporting that U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson was “steaming toward’s the North Korean peninsula”, that ship and its convoy were actually moving the opposite direction, to a training excersize in the Indian Ocean.

The New York Times delicately depicts the about-face revelation that it, as well as the entirety of the American news apparatus, had been incorrectly reporting the position of one of the world’s largest naval vessels, relying solely on the word of Trump Administration officials:

"The story of the wayward carrier might never have come to light had the Navy not posted a photo online Monday of the Carl Vinson sailing south through the Sunda Strait, which separates the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra."

This type of turn makes clear a stark reality undermining recent inroads by platforms like Facebook to identify “Fake News”. What happens when the news coming from the White House is fake? Ironically, those used to dealing with claims made by the North Korean government are familiar with this type of open bluster.

The United States Navy is certainly not a transparent entity, nor should it be in the interest of national security. But there are clues about this story, and about much of the news surrounding North Korea, that should raise skepticism in the eyes of truth-seekers.

Grapple Media is developing software that can identify vulnerabilities in information found online, whether they be questionable web sites, outdated or disputed facts, or in the case of much reporting about North Korea, missing context and limited primary sources of information.

Until then, I will breakdown some of the problematic storylines around the mysterious communist nation the old fashioned way (with my 10 fingers). For this analysis, I rely heavily on an episode of WNYC’s On The Media. One of my favorite shows, OTM regularly delves into the hazards and difficulties of journalism in the modern era.


In this particular episode, On The Media actually foreshadows the Trump Administration’s reversal of course on its supposedly escalating conflict with North Korea.

1. North Korea is making unprovoked threats toward the United States.

The value proposition pitched in coverage of the U.S. Carl Vinson debacle was that the United States was sending “an armada,” to quote President Donald Trump, to North Korea as a deterrent to presumably impending war.

The International Business Times went so far as to publish this headlline Thursday: “North Korea unlikely to start nuclear war this week.”

“Have you heard, we’re about to be at war with North Korea,” OTM host Bob Garfield begins a segment. “But are we?”

We then hear from David Kong, director of USC’s Korean Studies Institute.

“I think the biggest crucial thing we keep missing, is that North Korea's threats are almost always couched in defensive terms,” Kong says. “It’s, if you attack us first, we will take you down with us, and they are pretty consistent, that say it pretty clearly. The media tends to overlook that first part of the commentary from North Korea.”

The problem with much of the coverage of the United States’ relationship with North Korea, Kong says, is related to the fact that nearly all of the stories published in the United States originate with one source, often unnamed.

As Mr. Kong points out, this should be a red flag to any news reader:

Most of these reports of coup attempts, or rice riots, or anything, almost always are from one anonymous inside source defector, which are made up and then repeated among a small group of analysts and journalists and scholars, which we then repeat. And then we cite each other, so it must be true.

This type of circular citation is endemic in online news cycles, especially as more publications have started aggregating viral content from other sites. In order to capture web traffic, a newsroom in, say, Tampa Bay, might put together a story about a North Korean uprising.

But the smaller publication doesn’t have a reporter covering North Korea, or the State Department for that matter, so they rely on material that others have published. The practice is repeated until it creates a web of internally cited sources, difficult to decipher and labor intensive to untangle.

Verdict — Missing context matters. Similar patterns emerge in the U.S. diplomatic standoff with North Korea, yet journalists relying on singular and anonymous government sources can be easily mislead, cycling information that then becomes more difficult to sift through. Determining the quality of a report requires analysis of the original source(s) of information.


2. North Korea is on the verge of a societal breakdown that will upend the dictatorial regime.

If you follow news about North Korea, you might be under the impression that the nation is teetering on the verge of civil unrest and societal collapse. Unclear decisions by North Korean leadership, like the recent assassination of Kim Jong-un’s estranged brother, are often chalked up as reinforcements of this theory.

But scholars who closely watch North Korea, including Mr. Kong, say there really isn’t any evidence that is the case.

As in the falsehood about North Korea making senseless advances, there is little reliable information on the state of domestic politics in North Korea, and information about potential unrest tends to come from singular, anonymous sources. In the case of a series of 2011 reports about the unrest, the source of information about said unrest came in the form of diplomatic cables, supposedly laundered through Wikileaks.

Adding insult to injury is the obfuscation of life in North Korea by media that have focused on the obscurity of life in the nation. Western journalists who are allowed inside North Korea are typically permitted with only limited access, and are monitored by government officials throughout the duration of their stay.

“The reality as I dig into it is worse than my worst nightmare. Yes there are political concentration camps in North Korea, but just the basic human right of being alive, and moving around and thinking, none of that is allowed in North Korea,” said Suki Kim, who delivered a series of undercover reports after living in the country in 2011.

Kim highlights the difficulty of finding accurate information in such a closed society, where only small slivers of information escape.

“We can’t go running around doing reporting. It’s almost like celebrity reporting, where you can write about Angelina Jolie’s hairstyle for an entire page,” Kim said.

Reliable reporting can happen, though, if information is culled overtime and quotes and interviews are weighed against one another.

“It’s like investigating mafia, everyone you talk to are also going to be a bit of thugs (SIC),” Ms. Kim said. “I think that is sort of true with North Korea, but when you talk to enough people and you start comparing numbers and what they said, you start getting a clearer picture.”

Singular reports from anonymous sources are not reliable indicators of the state of affairs inside the most diplomatically isolated place on earth.

What we do know about the state of social unrest in North Korea is that the nation is in better shape that it was in the past. In 1995, a famine killed roughly half-a-million people, yet Kim Jong-il’s empire stood and continues to stand for another decade. Beyond reports originating from a few defectors and unclear sources, there is little evidence that Kim Jong-un’s stronghold is at a precipice.

Verdict — Identifying reports that are one-offs, based on anonymous quotes and singular sources, is critical to gauging the accuracy about any news report. It is perhaps no more critical than in the case of North Korea, where a powerful state-run propagada enterprise can manipulate news reports to great effect, particularly when Western reporters are so eager to find sources and so trigger happy once they do. Unfortunately, the intertangled nature on internet reports make this task more complicated.


3. North Korea has never negotiated with the United States

A CBS news headline Wednesday declared the following:

Tillerson tries to force North Korea to negotiating table

The article goes on to highlight an effort by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to engage the dictatorship in negotiations with Mr. Kim. In the article, Mr. Tillerson says he wants to prompt the north to “re-engage, but re-engage with us on a different footing than the past talks have been held.”

The article goes on to cite a narrative espoused by President Donald Trump, that if only North Korea can realize the great power of the United States, it will surely fly its linens and give up on a half-century of sovereign military proliferation. The article goes on…

“The Trump administration has repeatedly said that it is hoping that China will do for Mr. Trump what it has failed to do for past presidents — force concessions from Pyongyang.”

I wish I had a tool that could quickly sum the number of times U.S. media outlets have reported over the past 20 years that North Korea is prepared for war with the United States. Every few years a new round of headlines break out, drawing readers and tension, a response from the U.S. military, and a counter-response by North Korea.

Missile launches are shown on television, and shoddy renderings of North Korean missiles destroying cities in the United States escape the grasp of the communist propagandists, fetched by the sleuthing hands of folks over at XYZ news.

Then, one way or another, leaders in Washington seemingly move on to other tasks.

Fact — North Korea is non-compliant with several nuclear arms treaties

Not-fact — North Korea has never negotiated with the United States

North Korea has not been preparing for war with the United States, at least not in the sense that I have been preparing this blog post for publication. North Korea has been prepared for war with the United States essentially since the last time the United States was involved in a war with North Korea. That conflict reached an armistice in 1958.

The nation, as Mr. Garfield points out, views the United States as an existential threat to it’s existance as a sovereign state. Those truly interested in understanding this dynamic should ask themselves, would most in the United States not like to see the North Korean regime disappear from the face of the earth? Perhaps these concerns on the part of Mr. Kim and his communist government are not so unfounded.

But the nation has not, by any means, been unwilling to engage in some negotiations. This 28-year chronology, assembled by the director of non-proliferation policy at the non-profit Arms Control Association, provides a handy rundown of the ups and downs of these talks.

The North has actively engaged in international treaties on multiple occasions. It agreed in the 1990s to halt construction of nuclear facilities. It signed international disarmament treaties, also signed by South Korea, the United States and other regional allies.

In fact, nearly every time the United States has been willing to make concessions to the North, it has agreed and has, for some time, slowed progress on military development. But the North has not given up its claim to sovereignty, and the economically struggling nation has sold its military technologies to foreign countries, only to be sanctioned again by the United States, only to then respond with threats against the United States, which captivate the domestic news media and prompt the latest muscle-flexing standoff.

By selectively excluding this context, news outlets manage to create an impression that tensions with North Korea are reaching historic levels, even when they are not.

All of the information to refute the bold statements made by self-interested political leadership is readily available on the internet, but is often boiled limp, oversimplified or outright excluded from breaking news coveage.

Verdict — The Korean conflict is an ongoing dilemma that plays out in terms of years, not weeks or months. This slow progression does not comport with the demands and priorities of many daily newsrooms, which are incentivised to churn out high-impact stories at a high interval. This leads many to believe that tensions with the nation are unusually high, when in fact the nation’s rhetoric and positions have barely changed in a decade.