On April 15, Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, missed an important birthday celebration: that of his late grandfather, Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding ruler. The younger Kim’s absence sparked speculation about his health. Early last week, Daily NK, a website based in South Korea, claimed that Kim had needed to undergo heart surgery due to “excessive smoking, obesity, and overwork.” The next day, CNN reported, citing Trump administration sources, that US officials had received intelligence suggesting that Kim may be in mortal peril. On Saturday, TMZ—which has a track record of breaking stories about celebrity peril—splashed, with characteristic subtlety, that Kim was “REPORTEDLY DEAD” (or dying); it cited regional media sources—including “a Hong Kong-backed news channel’s vice director who’s apparently the niece of a Chinese foreign minister”—that, it warned, in bold type, it had not itself corroborated. (Your average Hollywood gossip, this was not.) Twitter went into overdrive, but nothing concrete followed. Top officials in South Korea played down suggestions that much is amiss; one told CNN that Kim is “alive and well.” As the New York Post put it in a headline, Kim is variously “rumored to be dead, brain-dead, or just fine.”
Since the weekend, confusion has continued to swirl. South Korea’s unification minister said Kim may simply be hiding out from the coronavirus—but as one analyst pointed out to Reuters, if that’s the case, why has North Korea not issued any proof that he’s in good health? (North Korea has claimed not to have had any cases of the virus. This is unlikely.) Addressing the press at the White House yesterday evening, President Trump said he had “a very good idea” about Kim’s health that he couldn’t share just yet, then said that “nobody knows” where Kim is. Also yesterday, KCNA, North Korea’s state news agency, put out word that Kim had just sent a message of greeting to Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa—but it did not offer any photographic proof that Kim is at work. “This suggests (only suggests, we still have no confirmation) to me that he’s alive but sick/recovering,” Anna Fifield, Beijing bureau chief at the Washington Post and author of a recent book on Kim, said on Twitter of the KCNA statement. “The regime appears to be trying to show that he’s still in charge but not camera-ready.”
ICYMI: Pandemic coverage and information gaps
On Sunday, Fifield reported that rumors about Kim’s health aren’t just circulating internationally, but inside North Korea as well—sources have told Fifield that there’s currently panic buying in the country’s capital, Pyongyang; that helicopters are flying low over the city; and that transit has been disrupted, including at North Korea’s border with China. Such insight is rare: as I reported last year, following Trump and Kim’s failed nuclear talks in Vietnam, North Korea is a “black box.” Information is tightly controlled by the regime—trying to browse foreign news can get you sent to a concentration camp—and press freedom is nonexistent: the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, which Reporters Without Borders published last week, ranked North Korea as the worst of the 180 countries it surveyed. (Last year, the country rose to the heady heights of 179th place on the list, only to fall back below Turkmenistan to the bottom.)
In the absence of free access and reliable internal reporting, external North Korea watchers have to triangulate—from human sources, but also by tracking flight records, reading between the lines of state-media narratives, and scouring satellite imagery. On Saturday, 38 North, a website which analyzes North Korea from the US, and the New York Times reported that a train that probably belongs to Kim has been spotted, since April 21, at a station in Wonsan, close to where Kim has a compound. This could be a clue as to Kim’s current whereabouts, although, as experts told the Times, North Korea has been known to manipulate visual signals—the deployment of Kim’s personal guard, for example—to throw long-range sleuths off the scent.
Clues are better than nothing, especially in the hands of seasoned experts. But they can only tell us so much. When it comes to stories like Kim’s current, alleged ill health/death, rumors that, if applied to almost any other major world figure, wouldn’t pass muster with major news organizations don’t just gain traction—the existence of the rumors, and the information ecosystem within which they spread, becomes the story.
In her piece for the Post, Fifield noted that, in the past, similar rumors about Kim Il Sung and his successor, Kim Jong Il, eventually proved unfounded. In recent days, she says she’s been “bombarded with questions” as to whether the reports of the younger Kim’s death may also be greatly exaggerated. “The short answer right now is: I don’t know. None of us will know until either North Korea tells us or he waddles back into view,” she wrote. Now, however, “the rumors feel different… Some analysts agree that this time it seems like more than the usual scuttlebutt.”
Below, news about the coronavirus:
- A briefing history of time: The White House, which decided against holding any coronavirus briefings over the weekend, canceled last night’s edition, too—only to hold the press conference in the Rose Garden instead. During it, Trump bashed Joe Biden and China, suggested he may sue states over their public-health policies, and dodged responsibility for his comments last week about the injection of bleach. Also yesterday, the administration excluded several news outlets from a briefing on testing led by Jared Kushner. And Elizabeth Williamson, of the Times, profiled Kayleigh McEnany, the new White House press secretary. Per Williamson, McEnany was introduced to Trump by Donna Brazile, the Democratic National Committee chair turned cable-news pundit.
- Cancel culture: Election officials in New York effectively canceled the state’s Democratic presidential primary, which was slated for June 23, by removing every candidate bar Biden from the ballot. Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the state’s election board, accused the Sanders campaign—which plans to take as many delegates as it can to the convention, even though Sanders already dropped out and endorsed Biden—of wanting a “beauty contest.” The campaign and prominent supporters—including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—pushed back, and noted that down-ballot elections will still be held on the same day.
- Caught in the middle: Scientific American updated its profile of Shi Zhengli, a virologist in Wuhan, China, to address rumors and media reports (which I wrote about here) suggesting that the coronavirus may have originated in her lab. The magazine notes that the genetic sequence of the virus “does not match any her lab had previously studied,” and that other scientists have been “quick to dismiss the allegation” against Shi, who is “distressed” by the traction it has gotten. Elsewhere, CNN has the story of Maatje Benassi, a US army reservist who has been accused, in viral YouTube videos embraced by Chinese state media, of bringing the virus to China. Benassi says her family is living “a nightmare day after day.”
- An information gap: Zeyi Yang reports, for CJR, that “breaking” English-language news about the coronavirus often echoes information that already appeared in China. “The disparity in timing likely owes to a number of factors—from the language gap, to a sense in the US that official media in China is unreliable,” Yang writes. Earlier this year, US journalists may also have been “too focused on domestic issues, especially domestic politics, to give adequate play to actionable information… on the other side of the world.”
- Diamond cut: According to Lachlan Cartwright and Justin Baragona, of the Daily Beast, Fox News cut ties with Diamond and Silk, the Trump boosters who hosted a show on its streaming service, after they pushed conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. Observers including Angelo Carusone, of Media Matters for America, argued that the ouster exposes “wild double standards” at Fox. “They acknowledge what they said was sanction-worthy,” Carusone tweeted, of Diamond and Silk. “Yet, Hannity and others [are] just as bad and they embrace not fire them.”
- Depth analysis: We’ve all seen pictures on social media appearing to show people clustering in outdoor beauty spots in fine weather—but such photos can be misleading, or fail to tell the whole story. Late last week, Philip Davali and Ólafur Steinar Gestsson, two photographers in Denmark, used different camera lenses (and angles) to capture images of identical outdoor scenes. In one set of photos, people appear to be clustered. The other makes clear that, in fact, they are appropriately spaced out.
- In brief: More than 40 journalists from the New Yorker worked together to document 24 hours in New York at the peak of its coronavirus outbreak. In the UK, the Financial Times reportedly suspended Mark Di Stefano, a media reporter, after The Independent accused him of lurking on a private Zoom call on which its journalists learned of coronavirus-related cuts. Also in the UK, members of the public are being invited to put questions to ministers at the government’s daily coronavirus press briefing. (The pollster YouGov is responsible for picking one question per day.) Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, returned to work yesterday following his brush with COVID-19.
Other notable stories:
- Tara Reade, a former staffer in Biden’s Senate office, alleged recently that Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993. Reade’s brother and an unnamed friend confirmed that Reade told them about the alleged incident after it happened; now Lynda LaCasse, a retired medical worker in California, has also come forward in support of Reade’s story, telling Business Insider’s Rich McHugh that Reade recounted the allegation to her when they were neighbors in the mid-1990s. Biden’s campaign has strongly denied Reade’s claims.
- For Vanity Fair, Caleb Ecarma profiles the American Conservative, a magazine, founded in opposition to the Iraq war, that wants to become Trump’s “in-house, in-flight magazine,” and “The Atlantic of the right.” Articles from the magazine, Ecarma reports, circulate regularly inside the Trump administration and campaign, suggesting TAC “is more of a Trump ideologue’s publication, if not the president’s own choice reading.”
- Emily Atkin, of HEATED, has a scathing review of Planet of the Humans, a new climate documentary from Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs that has won plaudits on the right, and that claims, per Atkin, that “renewable energy is worse for the planet than fossil fuels.” The film, Atkin says, is akin to “an argumentative essay from a lazy college freshman.”
- The American Civil Liberties Union and partner plaintiffs will (virtually) argue in court today that the public should be allowed to see a sealed ruling that reportedly blocked the Justice Department from forcing Facebook to alter its Messenger service so that the FBI could access it. Today’s is the first public hearing related to the case, the ACLU says.
- In Benin, Ignace Sossou—a journalist who was jailed last year for accurately reporting remarks from a public prosecutor at a conference—will also appear in court today, to appeal his 18-month sentence. Organizations including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders are calling for Sossou’s immediate release.
- Local authorities in New South Wales, Australia, are no longer required to place ads with newspapers—a potential “nail in the coffin” for local outlets’ finances that mirrors similar moves in the US. Officials in some areas said the recent closure of Murdoch-owned print titles left them unable to comply with the law. The Sydney Morning Herald has more.
- And for a forthcoming podcast, Patrick Radden Keefe, of the New Yorker, investigated whether the Scorpions’ 1990 hit “Wind of Change” was written by the CIA. The podcast, from Crooked Media and Pineapple Street Studios, will debut on Spotify on May 11.
ICYMI: Why the Left Can’t Stand the New York TimesJon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.