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How the 'Hungry Dogs' Story Shows Us How Little We Really Know About North Korea

07/01/2014 17:07 GMT | Updated 09/03/2014 09:59 GMT

The last few days have seen a number of news organisations looking rather sheepish and blushing intensely when you look at them - as they all fell for the hoax that claimed that Kim Jong Un executed his uncle using a pack of dogs. Not only is this a failure of journalism, but it's yet further evidence of just how worried we should be about North Korea. Though we think about North Korea as a bit of a joke - surely we should take these unknown unknowns more seriously? Do people realise how little we actually know about what happens in the country?

In many ways it was the perfect news story - it is both horrifying in an attention-grabbing way (no boring old noose), and comes complete with a side of crazy - feeding into our perception of the North Korean regime as a ridiculous parody of totalitarianism. Best of all - because the uncle was previously a member of the horrible regime, we don't even have to temper our bemusement with deathly platitudes! If only it had turned out he was executed for 'twerking' (and, umm, if it were true), we could have declared "the news" done, as it would never be topped.

It's not surprising so many people took it at face value though. Given how little news gets in and out of the country, and how crazy we know Kim is and his predecessors were - what's so outlandish about some dogs?

It's actually really interesting to consider how much we do know about what's going on inside. And perhaps more importantly, how can we glean any information to support the policy makers who are supposed to make informed decisions that could impact the Korean peninsula? Wouldn't it be wise to have some expectations on how the Kim regime will react to different policy changes?

What about the people who have actually been there? As an amateur North Korea watcher, I've consumed a number of different books and accounts of people far braver than myself taking trips there and the really surprising thing is just how similar they are. Trips taken by everyone from the BBC's John Sweeney to comic writer Guy Delisle to former US National Security Council member Victor Cha's reportage from the country all strike a weirdly familiar tone. All great reads - but all telling the same story.

First there's the statue of Kim Il Sung that they have to bow before, then there's the tale of how the only streetlighting is for statues and murals of their Marshall, then there's the government 'guides' following them and spying on them. Maybe a visit to one of the museums where - amusingly - they're given a bizarre North Korean spin on how the Korean War really happened. There's probably a bit where the traveller tries to break the rules - by taking a photo or a video of something they shouldn't, only to be told off.

It's not surprising - after all, westerners visiting the North are all given the same tour... because that's pretty much all there is that they want you to see - there are not many options for a night out in Pyongyang. So there's a real question if anything valuable is being garnered by these people - but in a situation like North Korea, even a little information is better than nothing.

Hell, so desperate for intelligence is the rest of the world that following the controversial basketball exchange coordinated by Vice magazine, the venerable journal, Foreign Policy came out said it: The US government should debrief Dennis Rodman. (Alas, they didn't.)

So what's our next best bet for figuring out what Kim is thinking? It turns out that it's perhaps what used to be called "Kremlinology". The BBC, in addition to making television, also watches a lot of it too. At BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham, they employ people to watch endless hours of North Korea television.

Obviously the North Korean news doesn't tend to report the facts hugely accurately - but what's important is reading between the lines, and seeing what is and isn't said. Thanks to the regime taking so much inspiration from Winston Smith, they take a great deal of care in manipulating the past - so for outsiders, it is possible to compare clips and statements to make like Sherlock and deduce what is actually happening. We saw this last month when Kim's uncle was suddenly edited from official clips - which told us something was up... so to later see him executed (albeit by less exciting means) wasn't hugely surprising. What was surprising about the execution was that it was publicly announced in a big way by the regime, who usually let these things go by quietly - itself another signal that analysts could read the tea leaves on, and try to figure out what it means more broadly (are the regime more jittery about dissent than usual?).

But even with this limited information, can we really know what is happening? Given the fact that one of the best example of figuring out what is going on is watching telly, albeit watching by some incredibly skilled and talented viewers, isn't that worrying?

Given that North Korea is a nuclear power, with an opaque leadership, and our best way to understand what is going on is educated guesses... shouldn't we be more worried?