Perhaps the greatest bottleneck in creating a stable and self-sustaining peace regime on the Korean Peninsula isn’t North Korea’s nuclear weapons or missiles but something much simpler: making peace with what we feel in our hearts is “evil.”
Case in point: last week, a right-leaning South Korean publication, The Chosun Ilbo, published a bombshell story that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had “purged” Kim Hyok-chol, Pyongyang’s lead negotiator in working level talks leading up to the Hanoi summit, executing him a month later. Another even more senior official close to Kim himself, Kim Yong-chol, was “sent to a labor and reeducation camp.”
That’s big news. And from there it gets even more interesting. Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, had “not been spotted in public since the Hanoi summit” some 50 days ago, said a South Korean government official. She was reportedly ordered to “lay low.”
But there was always a problem with these reports—the sourcing was extremely thin. The claims concerning Kim Hyok-chol and Kim Yong-chol were based on a single anonymous source “that had knowledge of North Korea,” according to the original report in Korean. The claim that Kim’s sister wasn’t seen in public suffered from the same sourcing problem.
But let’s be honest with ourselves. Knowing the stakes involved and how any news on North Korea’s inner works and palace intrigue such as this goes viral, why would any editor publish this story with such thin sourcing? For a report such as this, almost any newsman would demand at least two sources. And considering how The Chosun Ilbo has made some big mistakes in the past, one would think they would be extra careful before publishing.
So I decided to see if I could get to the truth through sources here in Washington. I spoke to multiple White House officials, senior members of the U.S. intelligence community, staff at the State Department, and diplomats around the city, and I came to a conclusion: no one could verify any of it. One White House official went even further, calling the whole thing “fake news.”
And then a funny thing happened: Kim Jong-un decided to settle the matter for us all. In almost comedic fashion, pictures appeared of Kim Yong-chol at a public performance, sitting several seats away from Kim himself. Now, maybe they cleaned Kim Yong-chol up, made him pretty, and sent him to the performance. Maybe, but that seems weird even for North Korea.
Kim Hyok-chol is a different story. Reporting by CNN’s Will Ripley, drawing on multiple sources, claimed that Kim was “alive and well” but “in state custody.” This seems much more plausible, as Kim Hyok-chol was criticized in many White House diplomatic circles as being a “poor negotiator.”
Then there is the case of Kim’s sister. While it’s still unclear whether she was punished in some way or not, she did appear close to her brother in recent photos during a very public celebration this week. Why do that if she was on the outs? Wouldn’t that suggest the opposite?
What can we glean from this, other than that the editor of The Chosun Ilbo had no business publishing any of it? While it would be easy for me to assume that the editor and reporter of the story had some sort of agenda, it does reinforce the important fact that journalists have a responsibility to the public, as their stories can change global public opinion, government policies, and even in extreme situations the fates of nations. We live in a day and age where many media outlets simply repeat over and over again the supposed news of the day. And while those reporting on this story were careful to make clear its sourcing issues, others only made a small reference to it—or not at all.
But perhaps the biggest problem is that when it comes to North Korea, we fail to do the one thing that might help us look critically and rationally at any piece of information. Put yourself in Kim’s shoes and ask this question: why after four summits with China, a summit with Russia, and two summits with the United States, as well as reshaping his image in various ways, would Kim throw all of that away in a tyrannical temper tantrum?
While clearly such moves would solidify his rule by creating even more fear in those closest to him, they would also tank what little positive international image he has. And don’t think for a second that doesn’t matter to him. If North Korea truly wants to come out of the cold and be a member of the club of nations, Kim cannot be seen as a pariah. If you think of it in those terms, none of this makes sense at all—that’s why I was skeptical of the reports in the first place.
The fact is that in the great game that is global politics, we love the simple calculation of good and evil, and our minds race to things that reinforce that narrative—over and over again. I have no love for the North Korean regime, but killing off a member of its own negotiating team so publicly before sending another to the gulag and seemingly banishing your sister only makes sense if you believe Kim is not rational, that he is just pure evil. I get that: I use to think that way myself. And maybe that goes a long way to explaining why the editors at The Chosun Ilbo pushed this story—they wanted to believe it, as it reinforced their perceptions of the Kim regime.
All of this reinforces a much larger problem, the reason America since the early 1990s has essentially demanded the Kim regime’s nuclear surrender: making any sort of peace with what we perceive to be evil or bad or immoral feels dirty. It feels wrong. And yet, if we are going to find a rational way of dealing with North Korea in the years to come, then we will have to accept the fact that, at some point, stop casting them as a villain.
Reports such as these prove how hard this will be. Changing our mindset on North Korea might just be harder than getting Kim to get rid of nuclear weapons itself.
Harry J. Kazianis is senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest. In the past, Kazianis was a foreign policy advisor to the 2016 presidential campaign for U.S. Senator Ted Cruz as well as the former editor-in-chief of The Diplomat. You can follow him on Twitter @Grecianformula.