SEOUL, South Korea — The surprise news set off a predictable wildfire of speculation and rumors south of the border.
Almost as soon as North Korea announced this week that its army chief had been dismissed due to "illness," the aggressive South Korean media went into hyperdrive. By Friday a newspaper, citing "unconfirmed intelligence reports," said Ri Yong Ho may have been wounded or killed in a blaze of gunfire when soldiers loyal to him resisted an armed attempt to detain him.
So which is it – illness or a gun battle? Perhaps neither. North Korea watchers are skeptical of the illness claim, but even an unnamed government official cited in the South Korean account said the firefight "has still not been 100 percent confirmed."
This is what happens when insatiably curious journalists in Seoul are starved for information about their tight-lipped, isolated rival to the north.
Many seemingly over-the-top news stories cite anonymous government or intelligence officials, North Korean defectors claiming to have sources in their former homeland or simply murky, unexplained, unnamed "sources." Few explain where they get their information, and many reports turn out to be wrong.
"The less we know about a country, the more rumors we tend to create about it," said Kim Byeong-jo, a North Korea professor at the Korea National Defense University in Seoul. "When curiosity is especially strong, rumors grow more sensational. ... Imagination takes over where facts are scarce and sources are unclear."
North Korea has yet to provide details about Ri's health or his future plans. While many outside North Korea experts say he was likely purged, it is still unclear what actually happened.
The capital, Pyongyang, portrayed a peaceful handover to new military chief Hyon Yong Chol. Soldiers celebrated in the streets with choreographed dances Thursday after the announcement of Hyon's new role and the promotion of young new leader Kim Jong Un to marshal.
North Korean officials have disappeared under chilling circumstances before, but the reports of their fates are often based on murky sources.
Amnesty International, citing "unconfirmed reports," said earlier this year that state security officials had detained more than 200 officials in an effort to consolidate Kim Jong Un's power before he became leader. The rights group cited more "unconfirmed reports" that 30 North Korean officials involved in talks with South Korea were "executed by firing squad or killed in staged traffic accidents."
Many reports end up being false. A prominent example ran as a stand-alone special edition of the conservative South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo in 1986.
In what it called a "world exclusive," the paper announced that Kim Il Sung, the current leader's grandfather and the revered founder of the country, was shot to death on a train near the border with South Korea. A day later, Kim was seen greeting a visiting official at Pyongyang's airport; he died in 1994.
In February, rumors that Kim Jong Un was assassinated in a firefight inside the North Korean Embassy in Beijing spread from Chinese websites to Twitter, sparking a frenzy of speculation about an overthrow just weeks after he took power. AP journalists happened to be at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing at the very hour Kim was said to have been killed and saw nothing unusual at the typically quiet compound.
Friday's reports on Ri were as dramatic as they were murky: Chosun Ilbo reported that 20 to 30 soldiers had died in a gunfight when Ri's bodyguards resisted soldiers sent to isolate him. The report quoted a source as saying that the possibility of Ri being wounded or killed in the gunfight couldn't be ruled out.
TV network YTN cited rumors among unnamed defectors about a gunfight.
South Korea's National Intelligence Service told The Associated Press that it has no idea where the newspaper got the information and was working to find details about the claim. The service doesn't talk about how it gets its information.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, in a statement late Friday, didn't address the reports about an alleged gun battle, but it did criticize what it called "ridiculous" and "false" rumors about the country.
It specifically faulted U.S. and South Korean media for spreading "misinformation," including reports about "serious power scrambles within the leadership" in North Korea, speculation that Ri wasn't dismissed because of illness and that the country was shifting away from its "military first" policy.
Separately, the North's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that U.S. hostility was forcing it "to totally re-examine the nuclear issue." It didn't elaborate. Talks on persuading the North to abandon its nuclear weapons program are stalled.
As an example of how news can become cloudy when information is controlled, Kim Byeong-jo, the professor in Seoul, pointed to South Korea itself. In 1980, tens of thousands took to the streets in Gwangju to protest the junta that seized power after authoritarian President Park Chung-hee was assassinated in office.
About 200 people died, but there were rumors of thousands of deaths. Kim said a media blackout meant people outside the southwestern city knew little about the military operations going on against the city's people.
"It takes time for real facts to emerge when information is controlled. In North Korea's case, it takes even longer, and, worse yet, truth may never even surface," he said.
Associated Press writer Jean H. Lee contributed to this story.