North Korea: Why the media needs a sausage maker in Seoul

World View: Any source is a good source when desperate journalists can't dig up the most basic of facts

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The crisis in Korea poses problems for the media. Basic facts about North Korea are unknown or their source is deeply dubious. For instance, nobody quite knows the age of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, who appears to be 29-30 years of age. He may or may not have attended school in Switzerland in the 1990s, but might also, for at least part of his time there, have been mistaken for his elder bother, Kim Jong-chol.

North Korean motives are equally unclear. A sign of journalistic uncertainty about them is the frequent use of gambling analogies, such as poker (FT) or roulette (The Economist). Comparisons with either may be misleading because they give a comforting sense of a coherent strategy to what may be the most ill-considered calculation of the risks.

Graphic media coverage in South Korea, on the other hand, is undercut by the South Koreans taking a calmer view of the crisis than the rest of the world. This is because they have been through so many crises like this before and they know there is not much they can do about it. Seoul is well within artillery range of North Korea, so the latter's acquisition of missiles does not make much difference to the degree of danger. South Koreans on the street often seem angrier about minor friction with Japan than threats of war and devastation from Pyongyang.

The Korean crisis is just one of what I call "powder-keg stories", in which something disastrous may occur but, at this very moment, nothing much is happening. In Iraq, for instance, there is always a chance that Kirkuk, at the centre of the oilfields claimed by Arabs and Kurds and ethnically divided, may be engulfed by a bloody conflict. But because this long-predicted event has not happened, the safest course for a journalist is to refer to it as "a powder-keg" and avoid specifying when it might blow up.

Comparison is seldom made with another country in the Middle East also always on the brink of a crisis. In the case of Israel, its threat, now stretching back over several years, to launch air strikes on Iran to prevent it gaining the capacity to make a nuclear bomb, has not materialised. Israel has not done anything except say frequently and furiously that its patience is near exhausted and red lines are being crossed. By these threats alone, Benjamin Netanyahu has achieved several objectives: consolidating support for himself at home and skilfully driving the US and its allies into imposing sanctions on Iran. International attention has been diverted from Israel's colonisation of the West Bank. As so often in Israel's past, the threat of war is serving its leaders much better than war itself.

Sources for what goes on at the inner councils of the North Korean leaders are ludicrously slight. Among those appearing on TV or quoted in the press recently are an English sausage maker long resident in Seoul and a penitent North Korean agent who blew up a plane over a quarter of a century ago. Slightly more credible is Kenji Fujimoto, a former sushi chef to the late North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, who defected back to Japan in 2001. According to US diplomatic correspondence published by WikiLeaks, Fujimoto was the Japanese spy agency's best and, at times, only source on North Korea.

It is easy to be cynical about the journalistic stretching of evidence, but the problem is more complicated than it looks. Journalists seldom make things up, though they may appear naïve in their reliance on partial sources. They usually skate over the fact that people tell them things to serve their own ends, and not out of simple love of truth and justice. They may picture themselves as spies on the doings of the powers-that-be, but most often they are a conduit for information leaked to further the purposes of others.

Journalists often have a good sense of how events are developing in general, but they do not have quotable sources that can back up their belief. In reality, it is quite difficult for even an efficient police state to keep its policies a secret for long, because it needs to act to implement them and these actions reveal its intentions. In the Soviet Union, for instance, Kremlinologists who held that you could discover the Kremlin's policies by close reading of speeches by Soviet leaders like Leonid Brezhnev were often derided as naive. But these Kremlinologists often got it right because the Politburo had to communicate its intentions beyond its own ranks, even if the terms in which it did so were veiled, if it did not want them to remain a dead letter.

I was a correspondent in Moscow from 1984-87 when the problem was often not knowing when an expected event had in fact occurred. For instance, the defence minister, Marshal Dmitry Ustinov, died on 20 December 1984. We found out a day or so later, when two journalists who had gone to cover the world chess championship in the Hall of Columns in central Moscow found a notice on the locked main door saying the championship had been relocated. Mystified by this, the journalists hammered on the door until it was opened by a woman with a mop. The venue had been changed, she said, due to the hall being needed for the lying in state of Marshal Ustinov.

Politicians, journalists, diplomats and intelligence agencies alike are often led astray by assuming that those in power will act in their own interests. I remember being assured by well-informed people that Saddam Hussein would not invade Iran because it was an amazingly stupid thing to do. We failed to appreciate the extent to which his intelligence was undermined by hubris and ignorance of the world outside Iraq. Leaders receiving semi-divine honours such as Saddam or Kim Jong-un must find it next to impossible to judge the limits of their own power.

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