Schrödinger's Kim / by Chris Duffy

Published on the Wag's Revue website on February 17, 2012

Kim Jong-Un, the newest Kim to rule North Korea, is dead. Scratch that: he’s still alive. Actually, we’re not really sure. The thing is, Kim Jong-Un is a lot like Schrödinger's cat, except he’s not in a box and he has nuclear weapons. The same conclusion remains, though: in the absence of any observation, Kim is both dead and alive.

On Friday, Twitter and its Chinese equivalent, Weibo, were rife with reports of an assassination attempt on Kim. One Weibo user reported seeing an unusual number of cars outside the North Korean embassy in Beijing. From there, his post was re-tweeted and magnified to the point where the rumor was covered by the Huffington PostGawker, and Forbes. By the time it reached these popular outlets, the story had evolved. Now, the story was that during a visit to Beijing, Kim Jong-Un had been shot by his two bodyguards in an attempted coup and that the men were killed trying to escape.

The only problem was that there wasn’t a shred of evidence to suggest that this was actually the case. The most logical explanation for the large number of cars was a celebration of what would have been the late Kim Jong-Il’s birthday, a date that was marked by festivities across North Korea. Further, if an assassination had taken place, why was there no noticeable police presence or lock-down of the city? 

At first glance, it’s remarkable to think that an innocuous question from a single Weibo user in China (roughly translated: “Did something happen in Korea?”) transformed into a breaking news story. However, what’s chilling is that this story isn’t actually unique at all. Nearly all “news reports” about North Korea are built on little more than rumors and hearsay. North Korea is a hostile nation with nuclear weapons wedged between two of the planet’s largest economies, yet we know shockingly little about it. Consider how difficult it’s been to debunk the assassination rumor. While the Huffington Post and Gawker racked up page views with a completely unsubstantiated story, more savvy and diligent writers about North Korea, like Max Fisher at the Atlantic, broke down the many reasons why this story was implausible. Fisher traced the digital footprint of the story through Weibo and Twitter. What he found was that the rumor had been spread through the echo chamber of the microblogging sites with assistance from accounts like @BBCLiveNews (a fake BBC account) and hundreds of users nowhere near either Beijing or Pyongyang.

Yet despite these clear indications that the story should not be considered reliable, the fundamental truth about all news reports on North Korea remains: no one knows for sure. As Fisher noted, “Is it possible that Kim's death really happened? Of course it is. This is North Korea; anything is possible.” ABC Newsquoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying, “Our experts are monitoring the situation and we see no abnormal activity on the [Korean] peninsula and nothing that credits that tweet as accurate.” In other words, even though all indications point to the tweet being patently false, the U.S. government is forced to rely on checking North Korean troop movements along the South Korean border to have any semblance of certainty. 

Ask any respectable North Korea expert to give you a definitive answer on pretty much anything, and you’ll get the same response: No one knows for sure. The president of the Pacific Forum think tank, Ralph Cossa, told reporters that “when it comes to North Korea, we're all guessing. The problem with watching events unfold behind such an opaque screen is that every event is subject to numerous interpretations.” Evan Revere, a former U.S. diplomat in Korea, has said, “like any veteran North Korea watcher, I am always prepared to be wrong.”

This aura of uncertainty is created by the almost complete isolation of the country and the lack of access to even the most basic facts. For instance, no one knows for sure exactly how many people live in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Only the most loyal and favored citizens are permitted to live in the city and since foreigners are only allowed to visit designated areas under the constant supervision of government minders, there’s no opportunity to assess what North Koreans think or feel about their state. Trying to understand North Korea under these conditions is a bit like trying to get a balanced idea about Disney by taking a tour of the theme park and then interviewing Mickey.

So little is known about any aspect of North Korean life that it was considered a serious development when documentary photographer Tomas van Houtryve was able to take snapshots of the Pyongyang subway, empty thoroughfares and clerks sitting in dark, unheated shops waiting for foreigners to arrive before switching on the lights.

Even the most widely confirmed and reported facts about North Korea are so outlandish as to seem impossible. Consider these:

  • While more than a million people died of starvation, Kim Jong-Il spent more than $700,000 a year on Hennessy cognac.
  • The country hosts the yearly Arirang Mass Games, which feature one of the world’s largest synchronized dances.
  • Kim Jong-Il once kidnapped his favorite South Korean director and actress and then forced them to make a Godzilla-style monster film, in which he received producer credits.
  • Every town in North Korea, even those without enough food to feed their malnourished and starving children, has a movie theater that shows propaganda films about the Kim family.
  • North Korea has the largest system of forced labor camps in the world. Many of the prisoners are innocent even of any alleged crimes; they are simply the family members and friends of one suspected to be disloyal to the regime.
  • The North Korean regime has an elaborate classification system for every one of its citizens with more than 50 subcategories in groups from “hostile” to “wavering” to “loyal.” A citizen’s categorization determines they and their family’s employment, food, housing, medical care, and place of residence.
  • Every North Korean home features a radio and speaker bolted to the wall without an off-switch. The government uses the speakers to broadcast directly into citizens’ homes.

Ultimately, any discussion of North Korea has to start and end at the same place: no matter how much we wish for informed opinions and accurate information, at this point, it’s all just shots in the dark.