“NORTH KOREA ‘tests engines ahead of possible rocket launch’,” shrieked the Daily Telegraph on 20 August, the quote marks implying that such a claim had been made somewhere in the paper’s cited source, “38 North, the respected website operated by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies”.
It certainly made for a more eye-catching claim than the one the academics chose to headline their own study: "No sign of launch preparations.” 38 North concluded: "Recent commercial satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station shows no discernable activity at the launch pad and gantry tower that would indicate preparations for an upcoming launch.” It qualified its evidence of recent engine testing at the site by pointing out that it was “not related to a possible upcoming launch”.
The report was under the byline of Julian Ryall, a Telegraph correspondent based in Tokyo, 700 miles from North Korea’s borders. He has some form when it comes to dubious claims about the country.
Back in August 2013, Ryall reported that North Korean pop star Hyon Song-wol – an ex-girlfriend of Kim Jong-un better known in the West as “excellent horse-like lady” due to a (perhaps deliberately) clunky translation – had been one of 12 musicians executed by firing squad for making mucky videos. The tale first appeared in the Chosun Ilbo, a popular South Korean daily with a ravenous appetite for dodgy stories on the Kim regime. Typically informed either by unnamed spooks in Seoul looking to wind up the Norks or – even better – “sources in China” (as was the case with that of Ms Hyon’s execution), the Chosun’s NK coverage is the most entertaining but untrustworthy that can be found in the South.
Ryall simply reworded the Chosun piece on Ms Hyon for the Telegraph the very same day, helpfully adding that the singer was “luckier than Kim Chol, vice minister of the army, who was executed with a mortar round in October 2012”. Kim Chol was killed, though not by mortar round. But Ryall was right about one thing: Ms Hyon does remain luckier. So much luckier, in fact, that she is alive and well, and has been back on the stage since May 2014. Her temporary disappearance can be put down to the more prosaic matter of maternity leave.
The Chosun one
The cancellation of Kim Jong-un’s visit to Second World War commemorations in Russia, meanwhile, was blamed by Ryall on Vladimir Putin’s refusal to provide him with “special treatment” (1 May 2015); by 4 May, special treatment had been upgraded to “surface-to-air missile systems”. The source for these stories? The Chosun for the first, and “a Hong Kong television report” for the second.
Charmingly, the process works in the other direction too. In September 2014 the Chosun, along with many other papers around the world, recycled a story from the Daily Mirror that Kim Jong-un was “hooked on Emmental”. The story was filed by Jeremy Armstrong, the Mirror’s North-East correspondent. No, not North-East Asia, but “an area from Berwick, down to North Yorkshire and across to Barrow”.