Tim Tate

Author, Film-Maker & Investigative Journalist


The Truth Shall Make You Free Fret


Yesterday afternoon (Washington DC time), President Donald Trump took to Twitter to articulate (in so far as that is possible) his latest stab at foreign policy.

“North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.”


Having already dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group to the seas around the Korean peninsula, Trump followed up his tweet by giving an interview with Fox Business Network.

“We are sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful. Far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That I can tell you.”


Trump’s bellicose threats ratcheted up tensions in the single most dangerous potential flashpoint on the planet.  In North-east Asia five of the world’s biggest military-spending nations – America, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea – face each other across the South China sea.  The region is ground zero of a largely US-driven an arms race which has been spiralling out of control for almost a decade.


Given the unique seriousness of this global threat, you might assume that western attitudes to North Korea – more formally known as the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) – are based on profound and empirical knowledge. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true.   North Korea has become a lazy journalistic – and political – shorthand for despotic cruelty and eye-watering craziness. Remarkably, as we shall see, many of those those pumping out these crude stereotypes have never been to what they insist on calling “the hermit kingdom”.


There are four main sources for the information – in the loosest meaning of the word – about North Korea relayed by newspapers and television.

The first is its own state news service, KNCA.

The second is South Korea, and in particular the Seoul government’s National Intelligence Service.

Reports by respectable human rights organisations provide the third, supplemented by often-sensational stories from those who have either escaped or defected.

And the fourth source of information is the output of “expert” think-tanks – mostly based in the US.


The problem is that three and a half of those four “sources” are grossly and routinely unreliable: often the “news” they provide is completely false.


On the other side of the 38th parallel, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service has been responsible for equally outlandish claims. In June 2015, for example, it “reported” that Kim Jong-un had disposed of one of his senior advisors, General Hyon Yong-chol, by shooting him with an anti-aircraft gun. This story was quickly published around the world as evidence of the bestial cruelty of Kim’s regime.  Rather less well-publicised was the NIS’ subsequent correction: that Hyon might not have been killed at all, let alone blown to pieces by heavy artillery.


(This sorry tale followed a familiarly dishonourable pattern of South Korean claims about the North. In August 2013, Kim was alleged to have had his pop-singer girlfriend, Hyon Song-wol, publicly executed with a machine gun for making pornography – a lie that ran round the world before the truth got its boots on.  Curiously few journalists subsequently reported Ms. Hyon’s live appearance on state television a year after her supposed execution.)


There is no doubt that North Korea is a repressive, single-party state with a sorry record of human rights abuses. Reports by Amnesty International,  Human Rights Watch and the UN have all clearly documented the plight of political prisoners and the existence “re-education camps” for dissidents.


Unfortunately, these solid, serious investigations can be overshadowed by what amounts to an metaphorical arms race in exaggerated claims – ever more grotesque allegations of torture, mass starvation and cannibalism – by defectors seeking to grab the attention of sensation-hungry western media. In January 2015, Shin Dong-hyuk, a (self-identified) survivor of North Korea’s prison camps , admitted that some parts of the shocking story told in his widely-promoted book, “Escape from Camp 14” were “inaccurate”.


What makes these over-sold exaggerations most worrying is that they find their way into the thinking and output of ostensibly-reliable western experts and think tanks.   In October 2010 I had personal experience of the reality of their attitudes and expertise.


I was asked to be part of a panel at the London Frontline Club. The subject under discussion was Kim Jong-un, who had just emerged as the man most likely to take over from his father, Kim Jong-il. (He did so just over a year later).    The reason for my presence was a documentary I had recently made inside North Korea. (“Dirty Little Secrets”: Al Jazeera, March 2010 – viewable on the films page of this website).


My fellow panelists were an academic North Korea expert, a UK-based South Korean human rights worker, the American director of a major think-tank, and a BBC World Service editor.   I was somewhat surprised to discover only I and the BBC journalist had been to North Korea. I was rather more astonished by all the other panelists’ bluntly-stated hostility to visiting the country and doing their own investigations.[1]


The academic, Aidan Foster-Carter –Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Leeds University and Mark Fitzpatrick, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies angrily denounced the suggestion that this was necessary, while on behalf of the BBC, Charles Scanlon (who said his total experience of North Korea amounted to half a day spent at Panmunjon, the border village tourist site) pronounced that it was often unhelpful actually to visit the countries on which he reported.


By contrast to my colleagues that night, I made no claim to be an expert.   I could – and can – only report my experience of making a documentary inside the DPRK. But that experience could – and possibly should – have been instructive[2]


That hour-long film investigated North Korea’s long-standing allegations that during the Korean War United States forces had used biological weapons, spreading anthrax, typhus and bubonic plague.   It took me four years of patient requests to gain filming permission from Pyongyang.   And, as the documentary made clear, we were dependent on the regime for transport (we traveled all over North Korea), on the ground translation and the choice of interviewees, including eye-witnesses to the alleged germ warfare. We had no way of independently verifying the identity of these elderly men; but the callouses and dirt deeply ground into their hands did appear to support their claims to be ordinary farmers rather than political bureaucrats.[3]


One of the other interviewees we were required to film – an official state historian – was, however, even more intriguing.   There was little doubt that his statements had been rehearsed with, and  cleared by, the regime’s leaders. When I asked him what it would take to repair the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington, he said slowly and firmly that if the United States was prepared to admit having used biological weapons then North Korea could begin serious discussions.


At the time there was no official dialogue between the two countries, nor any effective mechanism for this to happen. In the previous decade, both had used US-based North Koreans as a back channel.   It seemed to me (and to my senior colleagues back at Al Jazeera) that the historian’s statement amounted to an attempt by Pyongyang to send a message to the new Obama administration.   I duly tried to pass it on to the State Department.


Two things evidently prevented State from listening. The first was the fact that the Korean War has never official ended (there was a truce, but no armistice in 1953) and as a result both sides continue to view each other as enemies. The second was that Obama had not then turned his attention – nor that of his State Department – to the Korean peninsula.


Fast forward to January 2017. The outgoing President had taken the time to consider Korea: he left the new and completely inexperienced occupant of the Oval Office an urgent warning. North Korea, Obama advised Trump, was the most important national security problem facing America.


President Trump is not a man given to in-depth reading, and has repeatedly denigrated his predecessor. This makes it unlikely that he will heed Obama’s warning – much less put in the detailed forensic study required to sift fiction from fact about North Korea.


The real danger is that his ignorance, short-attention span and need for perceived “success” will lead him to rely on bullet-point versions of the already-shoddy sensationalism of lazy journalism and soi-disant experts.   Truth, as ever with Trump, will be a casualty.     But if he baits North Korea – or, more likely is baited by it – into military action,  the most unstable and geo-politically dangerous place on earth is likely to be engulfed by a terrible, possibly nuclear, war.


[1] This is a viewpoint repeatedly depressingly often by people who ought to know better. In the introduction to his book, The Korean War, Max Hastings, one of Britain’s most celebrated newspaper editors and authors, was not ashamed to boast that he “made a decision from the outset to make no approaches to Pyongyang” because it would be impossible to get any worthwhile insights from “a society in which the private possession of a bicycle is considered a threat to national security”. One insight he might have obtained, had he ventured into North Korea, is the enormous number of bicycles ridden by its citizens.

[2] I hold no brief for North Korea. I deplore its human rights record. But it is an uncomfortable fact that the western nations who hold Pyongyang’s feet to the flames routinely turn a blind eye to exactly the same – though vastly larger – abuses by China.  Double-standards are deeply unedifying, especially when shouted from the moral high ground.

[3] Subsequent filming in the US – including with an elderly US Air Force veteran – seemed to support the North Korean claims


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