Features | Politics | East Asia

How Weibo “Killed” Kim Jong-un

Rumors of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s death were premature. But why did China let such chatter take on a life of its own?

According to North Korean media, a group of students arrived this past week at Pochonbo where, just spitting distance from an empty, gleaming Chinese tariff-free zone, they were encouraged to learn lessons from the anti-Japanese guerillas, in particular the method of “publishing flash news.” In the Kim Jong-un era, students are spreading the revolution online, occasionally sending an expedition out on the comment boards of the Chinese  defend the dignity of the country’s leader.

But the image of Kim Jong-il’s successor came under perhaps its most extraordinary assault Friday, when the Chinese internet – quickly followed by the world’s media – seethed with rumors of an assassination. Kim Jong-un, microblog Weibo posts asserted, had been killed at 2 a.m. in the North Korean Embassy in Beijing. Details were scarce, but lending a veneer of respectability to the enterprise was Phoenix TV, the semi-state affiliated, semi-reformist internationalist outlet based in Hong Kong.    

Certainly, Chinese netizens haven’t had the happiest relationship with Kim Jong-un: he’s habitually referred to as “Fatty Kim,” and Chinese state TV has fanned such flames by passing along parodies (easily accessible during his father’s funeral) depicting the young Kim as “Kung Fu Panda”.  Virtually every time his father spun through China unannounced, Weibo lit up with unconfirmed reports of Kim Jong-un sightings in such cosmopolitan centers as Changchun. The odd formalities of the information environment in China are such that Weibo, rather than state media, is seen in China as the more fertile ground for genuine news (along with all those rumors).

So what to make of Friday’s talk? Jaundiced irony is hardly a monopoly of the Western press when covering North Korea, but some of the analysis of the Kim Jong-un rumors was, frankly, a little embarrassing. Gawker, Huffington Post and Reuters, all weighed in, sometimes inexplicably relying on unedited Google translations. Apparently content with the “Babel,” no one bothered to check or cite the North Korean state organ, the Rodong Sinmun (the newspaper does, after all, have a website). On the day he was supposedly killed, Kim Jong-un was on the website’s front page – he had received a gift from Kuwait – although there was no clear evidence he was actually there for the event.

As the next edition rolled out on the morning of February 11 local time, Kim Jong-un was said to be accepting condolences from neighbors. North Korean journalists gave a subtle nod to the Weibo rumors by including two pictures of Kim Jong-un with his dead father in a new Rodong Sinmun photo gallery, highlighted in red as if to say “hello foreign journalists.” These aren’t insignificant items: since the January 8 documentary film extravaganza celebrating Kim Jong-un, such photo montages of the deceased father have been inexplicably sloppy in omitting Kim Jong-un, going so far as to include Jang Song Taek, the so-called “regent” of North Korea who has shown hints of developing his own nascent cult of personality.

But there was one detail that would have led at least some faint credibility to Friday’s rumors – the absence of the leader at any events on February 8, which on the North Korean calendar is the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army.  For a young man so obviously determined to align himself with both the soul of the army and its founder, it seems more than a little odd that February 8 would pass without another opportunity being taken to go cheek-to-jowl with the troops.  While  Kim Jong-un’s absence might be chalked up to modesty in the shadow of his father’s approaching birthday, this, more than notes on the number of cars in Beijing, could serve as “evidence” that something was out of the ordinary in the North Korean inner sanctum.

Regardless,why did China allow the rumor to spread? In a country with such tight internet controls (literally every single micro-post on Weibo has a “report” button attached to it), the story was allowed to play amid all the unresolved questions around Kim Jong-un’s brother, Kim Jong-nam, being in China.  

Indeed, China has not only failed to censor speculation around the outspoken (and highly critical) Kim Jong-nam – the government actually allowed a recent Nanfang Zhoumo article about Japanese journalist Yoji Gomi’s book of interviews to be published. Chinese reporters, meanwhile, still have to cede their cell phones to minders when in North Korea.

All this suggests significant strains in China’s relations with North Korea. China has indicated it wants Kim Jong-un to relax the country’s militarism and open up to investment under Chinese protection. And the fact is he’s not doing that. On the Chinese side, there doesn’t appear to have been any real effort to limit Kim Jong-nam’s movements. Indeed, officials seem happy with him posing as the possible face of reform.

Why? The Chinese decided after the second North Korean nuclear test that the gloves would come off in public discussions of the Kim family and, while some concessions were made at delicate times (such as after Kim Jong-il’s death), they seem in no mood to muffle Kim Jong-nam.

This discourtesy won’t make for as exciting headlines as rumors of Kim Jong-un’s death, but it likely does more to chafe North Korean propagandists who have spent their entire careers developing the personality cults of all three ruling Kims. The ruling family will have to watch their backs for more high-speed ambushes, including from their ostensible allies across the Yalu River.

Adam Cathcart is an assistant professor of Chinese history at Pacific Lutheran University and Editor of SinoNK.com.