Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chosun Ilbo In the Sights

I enjoy and respect Adam Cathcart's efforts to keep the international and domestic media honest. As far as I am concerned, lying or going super-hyperbolic about North Korea is like shooting fish in a barrel, which should by rights mean easy but not fun. However, that doesn't stop even some of the more seasoned reporters and experts out here.

Adam seems to view the situation similarly. Taking time off from urging people to read the Chinese press with his "How can you say one thing one year and one thing the next?" argument in the comments section here, Adam makes a legitimate basic point, ostensibly that while single-source reports on North Korea need to be swallowed, albeit unwillingly, for reasons of state-enforced unverifiability, shouldn't they at least be consistent with each other?

But I nevertheless question Adam's reasoning in this case. Here is his comment;

The linked Chosun Ilbo asserts that the shooting by DPRK border guards of North Korean refugees on the Chinese side of the river/border is a new phenomenon (attributed of course to Kim Jong Eun, who was last in Hyesan last month, but who needs corroborating details anyway?).

The only problem with the “deadly escalation on the border thanks to the murderous Kim Jong Eun” trope is that it blatantly contradicts the Times of London report (and Tim Peters, via this entry of yours) which asserted similar policies in 2008, and did so far more colourfully, attributing gigantic Russian sniper rifles to the border guards. (It’s these kind of details that make a story really stick in one’s mind, in case North Korean malfeasance were insufficient on its own terms.) Given the absence of other narratives or sources, it’s fine to rely on these single-source stories from the border — and yes, there is nothing about this Chosun Ilbo story just yet on the Changbai city web-pages or the Jilin provincial government pages or the Huanqiu Shibao or the National Defense Journal in China, and I was in Beijing rather than Jilin province on the day of the alleged atrocity — but how is it possible to have it both ways?

Are North Korean border guards already gunning people down on the border, or are we just supposed to forget about all that and go with the Chosun Ilbo flow here? As they write:

North Korean border guards had never shot at defectors once they reached the Chinese side. Observers say guards must have new instructions for dealing with defectors.

Leader Kim Jong-il’s son and heir Jong-un has apparently ordered border guards to shoot anyone who crosses the border rivers without permission. He also reportedly said he would not tolerate defectors crossing the border.

In this case, you see, I don't have any problem with having it both ways; that shoot-to-kill orders could be issued more than once, and furthermore be issued by someone new with a point to prove. Why couldn't this be? Making North Korean border guards follow orders must be a constant battle between the desire on the part of the guard to earn money from turning a blind eye to defections, and official efforts to have that guard shoot the same defectors on-site.

Not only that; the Chosun Ilbo doesn't really say that they are new (i.e. as in not issued before) instructions, just that recent (i.e. plausibly a repetition of prior) instructions have been issued. The word "new" is only present in the English version.

Nevertheless, Adam is doing good work, and I really appreciate it.

By the by, you may like to know that in the Korean version of the article it actually 'quotes' directly the words of Kim Jong Eun! For the record, he allegedly said, "The shooting of persons who cross the river without permission is permitted" and "The taking of bribes to let defectors cross the river will not be forgiven."

Frankly speaking, I very much doubt that the Chosun Ilbo has inside sources quite that good. An opinion I fully anticipate Adam agreeing with.

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