Last Friday, rumours that Kim Jong-un was assassinated at the Beijing embassy began on Weibo, hopped over to Twitter, then went around the world. The “Great Successor”, as it turns out, is still alive and kicking, and the rumours were actually sparked by his daddy’s 70th birthday celebrations (even though he’s pickled kimchi now).
Canada’s National Post outlines how the rumours became “fact”:
It all seems to trace back to a message from Weibo user Hucaihe, who quipped that there was an ever-growing number of cars at the North Korean embassy. “It’s the first time I’ve seen this situation, did something happen in Korea?”
The hint of trouble in the hermit kingdom was enough to get the attention of fellow Weibo users; that message has since been forwarded more than 12,000 times, which is only the tip of the iceberg.
Despite the dubious nature of the rumour, the reports continued to gather steam, especially when a couple of American news outlets reported on the claims.
One person on Weibo wrote (poor translation), “confirmed reports, the top leaders in # Korea # # jinzhengen was assassinated # . Reportedly occurred at 2:45 on the 10th, gold and three fat was assassinated in their own villa, the Korean Embassy in Beijing has brought together more than 30 cars, the scale of more than Kim Jong-il’s death the situation.”
US government officials soon stepped up to debunk the rumours:
Several U.S. officials contacted by ABC News said there was no validity to the reports that originated on a Chinese social media site and soon spread to Twitter.
“There’s nothing to this, ” said one U.S. official, who added that there were no indications that the reports were true.
Another U.S. official said, “Our experts are monitoring the situation and we see no abnormal activity on the [Korean] peninsula and nothing that credits that tweet as accurate.”
Max Fisher of The Atlantic asks why so many people were inclined to not just believe the rumour, but to pass it on:
The answer may have something to do with how Americans conceive of the difference between open societies, like ours, and closed societies, like those of China and North Korea. If a Western head of state had been assassinated in a neighboring Western capital, the news would saturate the globe within moments. We understand that information doesn’t work the same way in China or North Korea, that news is controlled and its flow regulated. But the Western imagination often sees Chinese and North Korean societies as something akin to George Orwell’s 1984, when the truth is much more complicated.
Information about what happens inside North Korea is, in fact, rare and often inscrutable. Kim Jong Il had been dead for hours and his country officially rudderless when the news finally broke, something that would likely have been impossible in any other country. Key events are rarely understood by the outside world, if we even find out. Last December, a freight train was derailed in a suspected attack; no one outside North Korea knows why or by whom. The hermit kingdom’s bizarre and Orwellian opacity has long fascinated the world. The images out of the country are so bizarre and hard information so scant that there’s little to prevent our imaginations from running wild. And the status of Kim Jong Un’s rule is still so uncertain (is he really in charge or is the military? does he maintain tight control or is the regime nearing collapse?) that we are ready to believe anything.
Lots more on the DPRK here.