Korean editorial rumor, speculation, and innuendo

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It all started with an English language South Korean newspaper making unsubstantiated claims that a staff member on President Trump's National Security Council was said to have mentioned that a limited strike against North Korea "might help in the midterm elections".

"White House shoots down claim that a member of Trump's National Security Council implied that striking North Korea could help him in the midterm elections" (David Choi, Business Insider [2/4/18])

Foreign-policy experts and lawmakers were aghast following a South Korean news report that attributed to a staffer on President Donald Trump's National Security Council the suggestion that a limited strike against North Korea "might help in the midterm elections."

The alleged comment, which was sourced from a scathing opinion column published Friday local time in the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, intimated that Trump would consider a limited strike against the North Korean regime "as a way out of his domestic political crisis" in midterm elections.

"Indeed, White House National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs Matthew Pottinger was reported as saying in a recent closed-door meeting with US experts on Korean Peninsula issues that a limited strike on the North 'might help in the midterm elections,'" the English-translated version of the op-ed read.

The anecdote quickly spread on social media Friday night in the US, fueling speculation that the White House was seriously considering striking North Korea — potentially endangering the lives of millions of South Koreans and thousands of US citizens — in order to score political points.

People, including newspaper reporters, took these flimsy accusations by Hankyoreh, and ran with them, elaborating on Matthew Pottinger's alleged misdeeds and calling for his resignation.  The rumors would undoubtedly have continued to fly if it had not been for White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stepping in to defend Pottinger and criticizing Wall Street Journal Seoul bureau chief Jonathan Cheng, who tweeted the original claims:

More importantly, responsible critics began to analyze the details of how it all happened.  The story generated an interesting Twitter thread, with this follow-up, centering on issues of Korean translation and problems with S. Korean editorial standards.  The main tweeter, one oranckay, is intimately familiar with Korean newspaper writing, having translated Hankyoreh and Chosun editorials for four years each, which means he'd had a close look at around ten thousand Korean editorials.

Here are some crucial quotations from oranckay's Twitter thread:

Translation says "was reported as saying," but Korean says "…다는 *취지의 발언*을 한 것으로 전해진다," more accurately translated as "is said to have said *something to the effect of*," "reportedly uttered something that *essentially means*," etc. But you can see what's missing

Moral of the story #1: Don't trust most translations of a Korean newspaper editorial down to the last word. You can trust the whole essence of it – "Ah, today the Hankyoreh has run an editorial opposing a 'bloody nose' strike" and stop there. Don't fixate on any one little bit.

As for the issue of how many Korean editorials are written, first note that in Korean it is quite common (ie, far more than in Eng) to put quotation marks around something that summarizes the gist of what was said. Which by definition means the listener is interpreting things.

Only gets worse w words like 취지의 발언 and 전해진다: "said something essentially meaning/gist of which means" and then 전해진다 is barely "reportedly." Is much weaker than "it's been reported." You could say "전해진다" abt local legend that's "been handed down for generations."

So Hankoyreh isn't even saying it's seen serious reports Pottinger said such. It's saying "it's being said he said" or "we hear he said." (FWIW entirely possible someone in SK gov't heard something Pottinger said and leaked to Hankyoreh, but they're not standing by source here.)

So, moral of the story #2: When you see a non-Korean (ie, not likely to defend self in K courts) "quoted" in an editorial, ESPECIALLY so roundaboutly like this, check news reports from same paper before you get excited. If Hankyoreh was so sure about this, it'd be in article, too

Moral of the story #3: Never, ever take anything written in a Korean editorial (or for that matter any) as reportage. Hankyoreh isn't "reporting" this. Not even elsewhere at Hankyoreh. Just "we heard Pottinger said something like ____". In an editorial!


In the midst of all this, some tweets were deleted.  Here's an important one (courtesy of Nancy Friedman, who kept a copy) from Victor Cha, who was under consideration for nomination to be the next ambassador to South Korea (his name has since been withdrawn):

And here's some more context from Jonathan Cheng, the WSJ reporter who made the original tweet (referred to above) that started the ball rolling.

[Thanks to Ben Zimmer and Shelley Shim]


  1. Robert Davis said,

    February 11, 2018 @ 12:30 am

    In non-political news, NBC reported some language difficulties for the mixed Korean ice hockey team. Any comment?

  2. 번하드 said,

    February 11, 2018 @ 9:51 am

    Hmmm, is that the same NBC that thought that Pyeongchang is in North Korea and also had to apologize after some insensitive comments regarding Japan? Hehe…
    Anyway, I found a short reference to a comment made by Sarah Murray, the coach for the South Korea side, in Hankyoreh, http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/sports/sports_general/830841.html

    > “미팅 때 용어가 달라 영어로 하면 통역을 하고, 다시 북한 선수에 설명해야 해 평소보다 시간이 많이 걸렸다”

    When in a meeting, when saying it in English because of different jargon, then translating, having to explain it again to the North Korean players, it took a lot more time than usual because of that.

    Sorry for stilted translation attempt, neither English nor Korean are my first language:)

  3. 번하드 said,

    February 11, 2018 @ 10:33 am

    Well, I had written the comment above in reply to a now disappeared post alluding to NBC having reported language problems in the combined team. If this was deleted because of being OT, please feel free to delete my contribution, too. The issue of how and to what extent South Korean and North Korean have diverged is very interesting but should probably be discussed separately.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    February 11, 2018 @ 12:42 pm

    I saw the deleted comment about the divergence of language in NK and SK with regard to the combined hockey team before I went to sleep last night in Honolulu. Will write a separate post about that because I have some very interesting material about it.

    [I see that the deleted comment has now been restored.]

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 11, 2018 @ 12:43 pm

    And now we have a controversy in the news about the interpretation of an event related to the Olympics:

    "Kim Il-sung’s face haunts South Koreans amid PyeongChang festivities"

    Mask used during unified Koreas’ ice hockey game stirs controversy

    Korea Herald By Yoon Min-sik

    Published : Feb 11, 2018 – 14:10
    Updated : Feb 11, 2018 – 17:48


  6. Jichang Lulu said,

    February 11, 2018 @ 2:02 pm

    For those who like hanja with their Korean,

    …다는 취지의 발언을 한 것으로 전해진다.
    …다는 趣旨의 發言을 한 것으로 傳해진다.
    …daneun chwijiui bareoneul han geoseuro jeonhaejinda.

  7. 번하드 said,

    February 11, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

    @Victor Mair:

    Very much looking forward to your post!

    For me, the NK document leak from past December provided interesting data points.
    Among other things, it contains many secondary school textbooks.
    Unfortunately I cannot dig in too deep lest I pick up some specific NK vocabulary and become a spy suspect:) Even some grammatical forms seem to have mutated.

    Re: US/European media, Koreans continue to suffer from low-quality reporting.
    Last gaffe was the Times(UK) that reportedly misreported Jeju-do of all places as "an island owned by Japan and claimed by Korea".
    Well, another island had been taken off the "unified Korea flag" after an IOC complaint.
    Dokdo/Takeshima/Liancourt rocks is to the East of the peninsula, owned by Korea and claimed by Japan, and really really small.
    How in the world one could mistake Jeju-do (much bigger, popular honeymoon and tourist destination, and to the South) for Dokdo really escapes me.

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