Thursday, May 3, 2012

Too Many Conspiracy Theories, Too Little Time

The U.S.-based blog NK News recently took a number of media outlets (and here, although it has been corrected) to task in an enjoyable and clear-cut debunking of what we shall henceforth call “The Mad Myth of the $15 Website”. To paraphrase the story; the aforementioned media outlets took the website of the Korea Friendship Association to be an official DPRK government website, which it isn't, and reported that it had been redesigned using a $15 template, which it had. Thus, following the very well worn path outlined in 'North Korea Reporting 101', the North Korean government was once again made to look not only mad and bad, but also cheap.

It was a good and necessary debunking, and one which has now inspired me to engage in a little debunking of my own; namely, of a Radio Free Asia (RFA) article from April 26th, ‘North, Tracking Down Spreaders of Rocket Launch Failure Facts.’ (The original article has vanished, but this Chosun Ilbo one was based on it.)

According to the article, the North Korean authorities are now hunting down students guilty of claiming that the Unha-3/Gwangmyungsung-3 launch of April 13th was a failure. It cites a university student from North Hamkyung Province as saying, “In Hoiryeong University of Education, they are seeking out those students who spread the false rumor that the Gwangmyungsung-3 launch failed. On the 21st they handed down an order to this effect to the NSA agents responsible for the university in a meeting of academic department leaders and Party cell secretaries.”

Still more controversially, it says that North Korea's televised admission of launch failure was a sham: “They organized for all the ‘television relay stations’ that convert the satellite signal for relay to the regions of North Korea to be shut off so the people of North Korea could not watch.”

According to the RFA source, who presumably hails from Hoiryeong, nobody had cared about the satellite launch when it happened since there had been so many celebratory events to attend and tasks to deal with, but “following the culmination of the Day of the Sun celebrations on April15th, the satellite launch failure rumor started spreading bit-by-bit.

In a convoluted explanation of a kind that always makes me suspicious, the article also goes on to explain that the focus is on university students because they generally do have an interest in the launch failure issue, whereas common people don’t care very much about it at all, so the authorities have moved to quash the idea of launch failure at source, telling students that it was a plot by the enemy to spread information “harmful to the esteem of the Republic.”

Which is odd, is it not? Because what we know to be true is that on April 13th, just four hours after the failure of the ‘Unha-3’ rocket launch, news that the ‘Gwangmyungsung-3’ satellite it carried had “failed to enter orbit” was released in a special newscast by a Chosun Central TV anchor.

So what happened? Would the North Korean authorities really have gone to the frankly implausible lengths of producing a TV news program acknowledging the failure, but not even in a truthful way, since all they did was concede that the satellite had failed to enter orbit, and then organising for all the TV signal relay stations in the country to go down at the same time in order that the man on the street would be unable to see it?

Such a story would certainly fit in with a particular strain of North Korea reporting; the same kind that resulted in The Mad Myth of the $15 Website, as it happens. But, as usual, the simplest explanation is the right one. Simply, the story is nonsense.

My evidence for this is two-fold. First, I was actually in Pyongyang on the day after the test, and during that time I was asked by more than one person on more than one occassion for my opinion of the launch failure. In one exchange, an official with the main North Korean tourist authority engaged me in an entertaining discussion (in front of the USS Pueblo, for those who wish to visualize), during which he politely but confidently reminded me of the difference between a launch “failure” and a “failure of a satellite to enter orbit.”

Our conversation went on for some time, covering the nature of rocket launches, how hard it is to put satellites in orbit, and South Korea’s own two failed launches (which were both well reported in Rodong Shinmun and are widely known about in North Korea). Finally, we settled on a politically non-controversial position; that North Korea has limited resources and is doing quite well to have gotten this far. Surely, we agreed, they will get it right next time. He had, of course, seen the news on TV.

Aware that despite all my investigative in-situ efforts, readers might still be prepared to believe that either a) only the people of Pyongyang were allowed to watch the broadcast, or better yet b) that the tourist official had been primed by the shadowy Workers' Party to persuade me toward this way of thinking, my second piece of evidence is that I also took the time to ask a number of North Koreans whether their friends, family and contacts know about the story, and not one of them, not even one, did not know about the failure. For example, one of those I spoke to told me, "I spoke to my brother and he knew all about it, and my friends knew, too."

So they saw it on TV? "Yes."

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