Rumors of Kim Jong Nam’s assassination have crossed the Sino-North Korean border and reached inland to regions as far as Pyongyang, the capital city, according to inside sources. In order to block the news from spreading, the North Korean authorities are tightening up surveillance and control in the border region, but this is having little effect.
In addition to the news of Kim Jong Nam’s assassination, North Korean citizens are also hearing rumors about the deportation of North Korea’s Ambassador to Malaysia, Kang Chol.
“Ethnic Korean-Chinese people and traders are sharing the news with Pyongyang representatives who visit the area,” said an inside source from Pyongyang during a telephone call with Daily NK on March 9.
“These Pyongyang representatives spend a long time abroad, which gives them a good opportunity to be exposed to international news. They became aware of the assassination incident while abroad, and have relayed the story to people back home. Bit by bit, the rumor spread until it could no longer be suppressed.”
These representatives who get dispatched abroad are not affiliated with foreign embassies, but are rather engaged in trade ventures with foreign currency-earning operations. This includes activities in industries like construction and forestry, and the representatives invest in factories with North Korean laborers and act as liaisons for those searching for North Korean laborers.
The authorities have put a gag order on mentioning the assassination and are monitoring the population to enforce the rule, so no one is publicly discussing the incident. But most have mentioned it to their family members, and the information has spread from there.
“It is difficult to publicly discuss information that has been learned while abroad, but they typically tell their family, friends, and co-workers, that this news ‘is just for us.’ That is how the rumor started to spread. In particular, the wives of the representatives spread word of the assassination while in the marketplace,” the source explained.
The marketplace is serving as a catalyst for the spread of new information related to the assassination of Kim Jong Nam. Merchants who travel all over the country gather together in the marketplace to trade stories and rumors that they have learned about while on the road. This has accelerated the speed at which the rumor has spread.
Markets near the border became an early source of the rumor’s spread soon after the assassination popped up in the headlines. Now, a North Pyongan Province source said, “It has already become commonplace to hear people talking about Malaysia in the markets. Market vendors and even little kids are walking around saying, ‘Malay, Malay.’”
“We hear lots of rumors in the market stalls,” she explained. “We heard that Kim Jong Un’s brother Kim Jong Nam had died and that the North Korean Ambassador [Kang Chol] to Malaysia has been expelled.”
She explained that North Koreans, on the whole, know that deportation is usually a punishment for a large transgression, and are using it as fodder for jokes, saying things like, “You’re deported!” if someone makes a mistake.
“Even though most people do not know exactly why he was deported, we know that a foreign ambassador has to commit a significant affront to be deported from the host country,” she noted.
The Pyongyang source expressed similar sentiments, pointing out that “however much they try to crack down, this is human society. All humans have the urge to learn new information and spread it once they’ve learned it. In particular, this incident is one that North Korean residents could not have expected or even imagined. That’s why it’s spreading so quickly.”
“Up until the 1990s, Pyongyang residents referred to Kim Jong Nam as ‘The Heir.’ For those who remember those times, this incident comes as a shock.”
But some are already reverting to reticence. “Starting from a few days ago, North Korean traders suddenly became quiet on the issue of the Kim Jong Nam assassination. When asked about it, they simply say, ‘I don’t know.’ This is likely a response to the authorities issuing a gag order that bars North Koreans from discussing the topic. The order is being followed up with tightening surveillance and controls,” a source in the Sino-North Korea border region reported.
“It has become harder to communicate with traders from places like Sinuiju and Hoeryong. When I talk with them on the phone, they speak strictly about business and don’t mention anything about current affairs. This might be an indicator that the authorities have even stronger surveillance equipment than they did in the past.”