Why Did N.Korea Doctor the Flood Picture?
The prevailing view at the Unification Ministry is that North Korea's apparent Photoshopping of a picture purportedly showing people in a flooded Pyongyang street signals a new development.
A ministry official said, "In the past, the North Korean media have exaggerated or distorted facts with a view to emphasizing that the country is strong and a paradise on earth, but they used to avoid negative news such as serious flooding."
◆ Change of Strategy
The North's state-run media have generally kept quiet about or downplayed problems like foot-and-mouth disease or bird flu or natural disasters such as flooding, apparently to avoid a panic.
Before the dubious flood photo, the regime had doctored or mislabeled photos "proving" that leader Kim Jong-il was in good health after his 2008 stroke.
But the flood picture is the first that seems designed to make a problem seem worse than it is.
Earlier reports about typhoon Meari, which hit North Korea on June 25-27, still reflected the traditional style. The Choson Sinbo, a pro-Pyongyang newspaper in Japan, on July 4 claimed the typhoon "died down" without affecting the North seriously, and damage was "not as severe as expected."
The U-turn came on July 12, in a report about typhoon damage by the state-run KCNA news agency. "Casualties occurred in various regions. Some 160 homes were destroyed and about 21,000 farms were inundated, washed away, or buried in mudslides," it claimed.
In an unprecedented move, the North Korean media then ran a series of reports all week long on the damage caused by heavy monsoon rains.
◆ Fishing for Sympathy
The initial speculation was that the North exaggerated damage to extract aid from the international community. But a diplomatic source said, "It's common sense that the North, where there are a lot of barren hills, is vulnerable to flooding. I wonder why the regime took the trouble to exaggerate the damage. The international community would be willing to help in any case."
Ministry officials speculated that what the regime is really concerned about is not the latest floods but plans for next year.
The North has proclaimed 2012 as the year when it becomes a "powerful and prosperous nation" and wants aid so it can celebrate in style, according to Prof. Kim Ji-young of Sogang University.
At the moment, international sanctions make it difficult for the regime to acquire materials unless some kind of disaster occurs and sanctions are eased. Due to a widespread understanding that it is difficult to ensure transparency in food distribution there, the international community is no longer as generous as it has been in giving aid to the North.
Recent reports that the regime is collecting food from ordinary people for the military have not helped. At a rally in Pyongyang on July 4, one participant was heard on state radio pledging, "We agricultural workers will devote ourselves to the struggle to give more food to the military."
A South Korean security official said, "It seems that the North chose to exaggerate the flood damage to overcome these obstacles."