Believing the Unbelievable: Why Kim Jong Un Death Rumors Won't Die

An incredible story that the North Korean leader was killed in Beijing gained remarkable attention in the West, revealing some of the ways Americans can misunderstand Asian societies.

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North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un waves to soldiers in this undated photograph / Reuters

Wild rumors circulate every day on Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media service, and mostly go nowhere. But Western media picked one up today and ran with it. The story goes that new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was assassinated today in Beijing during an unreported visit. The evidence is a couple of posts on Weibo (or maybe just one post, it's not clear), followed by a tweet from Chinese blogger Joe Xu that "nothing is verified only report of large number of cars at NK embassy, but rumors like this pop up every other week."

That was all it took. The story has been circulating in Western social media (and in Western news rooms) all day, generating speculative news stories that repeated the rumor and added little else, all of it urged on by readers desperate to know more. When Gawker ran a post with the somewhat misleading headline "Chinese Twitter Says Kim Jong-Un Was Assassinated This Morning In Beijing," about 300,000 readers checked in within the first few hours. (I've got some Foggy Bottom sources who say Hillary Clinton is resigning, but I won't let you know until you click the headline that my sources are a couple of homeless men wandering down Virginia Avenue.)

Around 3 pm, as the rumor continued to swirl, a Twitter account called @BBCLiveNews tweeted "Confirmed breaking news. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un assassinated. Updates to follow." Within an hour, it had been retweeted by over 2000 people, reaching who knows how many thousands of users. The account, like its "breaking news," is obviously fake on the briefest inspection; it had only 52 followers when it first sent the phony alert, and its previous tweets are mostly harassing messages directed at someone named "Gary Glitter."

Is it possible that Kim's death really happened? Of course it is. This is North Korea; anything is possible. Is it credible? As of this moment, no. I and some Atlantic and Atlantic Wire colleagues tried to find the slightest suggestion of truth, or even the possibility of truth, and found nothing. With evidence so thin and so many reasons to believe that the story is nonsense, why have American readers and writers taken it so seriously? What has led -- is still leading -- so many people to not just believe this rumor but pass it on?

The answer may have something to do with how Americans conceive of the difference between open societies, like ours, and closed societies, like those of China and North Korea. If a Western head of state had been assassinated in a neighboring Western capital, the news would saturate the globe within moments. We understand that information doesn't work the same way in China or North Korea, that news is controlled and its flow regulated. But the Western imagination often sees Chinese and North Korean societies as something akin to George Orwell's 1984, when the truth is much more complicated.

Information about what happens inside North Korea is, in fact, rare and often inscrutable. Kim Jong Il had been dead for hours and his country officially rudderless when the news finally broke, something that would likely have been impossible in any other country. Key events are rarely understood by the outside world, if we even find out. Last December, a freight train was derailed in a suspected attack; no one outside North Korea knows why or by whom. The hermit kingdom's bizarre and Orwellian opacity has long fascinated the world. The images out of the country are so bizarre and hard information so scant that there's little to prevent our imaginations from running wild. And the status of Kim Jong Un's rule is still so uncertain (is he really in charge or is the military? does he maintain tight control or is the regime nearing collapse?) that we are ready to believe anything.

But China is not North Korea. Though it still sometimes appears that way in the Western conception, the country has transformed since the days of Mao Zedong, when they really were similar. Though the Chinese state is still one of the world's most repressive, reliably ranking at or near the bottom of every list of countries by civil liberties or basic rights, Chinese society is vibrant and noisy, especially in the capital, where the "assassination" reportedly took place. Individuals may not be allowed to organize, protest, or discuss sensitive events, but they do it anyway, in small ways they expect will be tolerated. If they do any of them too much, they know, the consequences can be brutal. The Communist Party's hand is heavy enough to prevent mass gatherings in Tienanmen Square, but not to keep hordes of witnesses to an assassination totally silent.

Beijing has almost 20 million people; maybe about half of its Internet users are on Weibo (the rate is 30 percent nationally). Why did only one of those witness the broad-daylight murder of a visiting head-of-state, who presumably would have been plowing through traffic with an enormous entourage? Why didn't any of the many Western and other foreign reporters scattered across the city either see or hear anything? And why did no one report the massive security shut-down that Beijing's army-sized police force certainly would have launched across the city?

These are all questions that a Chinese observer would have known to ask before quickly dismissing the story as an obvious fraud. But far-away Western bloggers and their readers, unfamiliar with the locations of China's red-lines and perhaps a bit confused about the differences between Beijing and Pyongyang, might be willing to believe that Kim Jong Un's assassination could really go unreported. In the odd and upside-down world of Asia, we seem to believe, the normal rules of gravity don't apply.

President Obama has declared that he wants to make this America's "Pacific Century," to bring the U.S. and our Western Pacific Rim neighbors together. But this incident is a reminder that there's more than just an ocean separating us. For all the American fascination with Asia, for all the media focus and the political emphasis on its rising powers, most of us still don't really understand how its societies work, how they're different from us and from one another. As long as we're willing to believe rumors like this one and spread them so widely, there's going to be a lot more that's lost in translation.

Update 7:00pm: Gawker believes the rumor began in Beijing with a heavily attended event at the North Korean embassy there.