23 February 2019
Despite reports about the North Korea nuclear crisis, it is business as usual in Pyongyang. Even foreign tourists are sightseeing around the city as expected. Photo: Reuters
Despite reports about the North Korea nuclear crisis, it is business as usual in Pyongyang. Even foreign tourists are sightseeing around the city as expected. Photo: Reuters

Fake news and the North Korea crisis

Over the past month the ongoing nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula has remained the focus of global attention. There is a growing concern among the international community that the crisis could escalate into the “Second Korean War”, or might even trigger a World War III.

However, as the military standoff across the 38th parallel continues, neither Pyongyang nor Washington has made any further move so far. On one hand, Pyongyang didn’t carry out a sixth nuclear test as it claimed it would, and on the other, the US didn’t launch any pre-emptive strikes against the nuclear facilities in North Korea.

Even more dramatic is that US President Donald Trump, who has been tough on Pyongyang ever since he assumed office, has softened his stance on the “rogue state” recently, saying he would be willing to have a direct dialogue with Kim Jong-un when the time is ripe.

In other words, despite all the saber-rattling, boasting and blustering on both sides, the military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula still to a large extent remains rhetorical, at least for now.

However, ever since the crisis took place, there has been a global media hype surrounding the incident, and rumors have been flying about how both Pyongyang and Washington are preparing for an all-out war. Yet, most of these rumors have turned out to be “fake news”.

For example, according to a report in the Russian newspaper Pravda (Truth Daily), the North Korean authorities have evacuated 600,000 people from Pyongyang and ordered the rest of the population to retreat to underground bunkers in preparation for US airstrikes.

The story on the alleged Pyongyang evacuation not only went viral in Russia but was also reprinted extensively by the western media and even by Chinese official mouthpieces as well.

However, as it turns out, the news was in fact totally unfounded, and I am in a position to say so because a colleague of mine who happened to be in Pyongyang since the onset of the crisis told me that life has been normal in the city.

There was no evacuation or any other wartime measure whatsoever. Even foreign tourists are going sightseeing around Pyongyang as usual.

The Pravda report could have been a result of Chinese whispers: rumors from unconfirmed sources were passed on among journalists from one person to another, and eventually snowballed into a piece of “breaking news”.

In the meantime, according to some media reports, the state-run Air China has recently grounded all its direct flights to Pyongyang due to “concerns over escalating regional tensions”.

Again, the truth is, Air China’s cancellation of direct flight services to Pyongyang has nothing to do with regional security concerns at all.

In fact, it was partly a business decision which had been made months before the crisis took place because the route isn’t making any profit, and partly a political decision in accordance with the renewed UN sanctions against North Korea.

And even after Air China grounded its flights to Pyongyang, most Chinese tour groups are still headed for North Korea according to schedule, since Air China is not their only choice (Editor’s  note: They can either fly with Air Koryo operated by the North Korean government or travel by sea.)

So what exactly is behind this sudden explosion of “fake news” about the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula?

One explanation might be that as the world has entered the era of “post-truth” politics after Donald Trump’s election as US president, most of the conventional wisdom and norms regarding international politics no longer apply, and now the only rule that governs world order is that there is no rule.

As a result, since there is no longer any set pattern to follow in global affairs, news media outlets around the world have become increasingly hypersensitive to even the slightest clue or source of information about ongoing global events, because they just don’t want to miss anything, and hence the practice of “broadcast first, verify later”.

And that includes state-run media outlets in China as well, which have become much more outspoken about North Korea compared with 10 years ago, because the Communist Party has to rely on them to promote patriotism and there is also a huge audience for sensational stories and provocative commentaries in the mainland.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 11

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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