A claim that North Korea has executed a coronavirus patient has been widely shared on social media, despite the story being unverifiable.
The story appears in the Singapore version of the International Business Times website, headlined “North Korea’s first confirmed Coronavirus COVID 19 patient shot dead: report”, saying that the country’s leader Kim Jong-un “sanctioned the execution of the first North Korean patient tested positive for the deadly strain of the virus”.
It’s based on a tweet by Twitter user @Secret_Beijing, who describe themselves as a “social observer and analyst about China and beyond”.
The tweet’s author does not say what their source for the report might be, but its spread shows that the hunger for sensational news from the secretive country is as great as ever.
The Secret Beijing tweet has been shared 960 times since it was posted on 25 February.
The entire text of the tweet reads: “Update: North Korea’s first confirmed case of the novel #coronavirus was allegedly shot dead: report”. There are no other details, and requests for a source by other Twitter users have not been answered.
The tweet was picked up by the IB Times in Singapore, who appear to have based their story on the claim, as well as earlier South Korean media reports on the virus that also rely on anonymous sources. One of these claims suggests a trade official was executed for breaking quarantine.
The IB Times story has also been re-versioned by anti-establishment, alt-right blog ZeroHedge, and between the two there have been thousands of shares across social media platforms.
With Pyongyang never being likely to confirm or deny such rumours, the story will probably spread – virus-like – around a world media hungry for North Korea stories.
Hunger for North Korea news
As ever, demand for news from North Korea means that unsubstantiated claims are often taken at face value.
This is particularly true in South Korea’s ultra-competitive tabloid press, where stories from anonymous sources are often enough to stand up a sensational North Korea headline.
In the past, stories featuring gruesome details of executions, Kim Jong-il’s alleged prowess at golf, and Kim Jong-un’s cheese addiction have all received global attention despite there being little or no evidence to back them up.
In fact, reported “victims” of executions have occasionally returned to the pubic eye, a lesson to those who believe unverified North Korean rumours.
What’s actually happening in North Korea?
With complete state control over the media, the full story of the coronavirus in North Korea is unlikely to be told.
The official government line is that there are no cases of the Covid-19 virus in the country, and the campaign to prevent the coronavirus is a matter of state security.
State media – which is usually reluctant to show international news – devotes large sections of its news bulletins to the spread of the virus globally, before shorter reports describing vigilance within its own borders, while pushing unlikely cures for the virus.
The Pyongyang government has not confirmed any cases in North Korea, and the UN Security Council has eased sanctions to allow medical equipment to prevent and control the virus into the country.
However, the South Korea-based Daily NK website, which claims to have sources within North Korea, continues to suggest that there have indeed been Covid-19 cases and deaths in the country.
These claims cannot be verified, and outsiders can only speculate about the true picture within North Korea’s borders.