Debunking Five Nights In Pyongyang – East Asia Tribune

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This Saturday morning, I woke up to this well-written article entitled, Five Nights in Pyongyang, supposedly from accounts of an investigative journalist going by the byline Chu Jingyi, for a publication called the East Asia Tribune. It was an awesome read, too awesome you’d be left asking if the story checks out at all. Read on to see for yourself.

debunking-five-nights-pyongyang-01

The report was a three-part series published just recently on their website, eastasiatribune.com. At first, I was captivated by the story (I still am, seriously it was that well-written) and how it narrated a series of events that kept me on the edge of my seat. I was thinking this is some news bureau running operations in Hong Kong by the way the article was written. The Chinese reporter’s command of English was just perfect, and the story was able to pierce right through and connect with my emotions.

Really, the story connected with me as I have this thing against human trafficking, white slavery and child prostitution. Add to that an inkling to read up on investigative reports and the story’s cloak-and-dagger appeal reminiscent of the cold war novels I’ve read growing up, I was suckered into reading through the entire three-part series.

Quoting from their article;

East Asia Tribune journalist Chu Jingyi travelled to North Korea in January 2016, assuming the identity of a Chinese executive looking to source raw materials from the rogue nation. During his six-day visit, Chu was exposed to some of the most closely-guarded secrets of North Korean society, which few foreign observers have experienced. Among which, the most extraordinary was a visit to a hidden brothel in the lower levels of a Pyongyang building. In this first part of an exclusive three-part series, Chu shares his story as he arrives in Pyongyang and proceeds to explore the mystery of the Pothonggang Hotel’s basement.

The first article seems to have gone semi-viral on Facebook. Based on this site, the article has been shared over 16,631 on that social network alone.

Finishing with three posts, I was left wanting for more. This was just too well-written that I shared it on my Facebook timeline saying this was ‘Pulitzer-prize’ material and then slept. It was a lazy Saturday morning after all, and I had nothing better to do.

It didn’t take long for the article catch the eye of several of my writer friends who also found the story too well written, too good to be non-fiction. By their own brief fact checking, the name of the editor-in-chief of the site, Alec Ustinov, didn’t even show up on a simple Google search.

Waking up stumped by the idea that I’ve been duped, I ran a few Google searches that revealed other people also having doubts about the veracity of the three-part series.

One anonymous Quora user pointed out the following;

In my case I found that their Twitter feed (East Asia Tribune) has only a couple dozen followers, which is strange for a purportedly large news organization (Their own About page says that they’ve been in business since 1972 and lists offices around the world, but these offices do not seem to exist based on separate searches for them.)

Another user, Jasmine Kok, had this to say about the East Asia Tribune;

I joined quora just to answer this. I’m pretty sure it’s fake. 1) the address on the website is fake (the postal code and street address don’t match, and there is no building in Shanghai called the east Asia tribune tower.) 2) the “serious” articles go back about three weeks. Any article posted before mid-March 2016 is nonsense. They also have no articles pre-dating mid 2015. 3) there is practically no info available on the internet about the east Asia tribune. You’d think a legit news provider would have at least a wiki entry. 4) most damning – I left a comment on their Facebook page setting out the above three points and it was deleted almost immediately.

I have no way of checking if the Quora users were legit, but this was enough for me to continue digging for more information.

WHOIS CHECK ON THE DOMAIN EASTASIATRIBUNE.COM

Running a WHOIS check on East Asia Tribune’s domain name, eastasiatribune.com, revealed the following information;

   -----
    Domain Name: EASTASIATRIBUNE.COM
    Registry Domain ID: 2014835663_DOMAIN_COM-VRSN
    Registrar WHOIS Server: whois.enom.com
    Registrar URL: www.enom.com
    Updated Date: 2016-04-08T02:06:48.00Z
    Creation Date: 2016-03-23T02:04:00.00Z
    Registrar Registration Expiration Date: 2017-03-23T02:04:00.00Z
    Registrar: ENOM, INC.
    Registrar IANA ID: 48
    Domain Status: clientTransferProhibited https://www.icann.org/epp#clientTransferProhibited
    Registry Registrant ID: 
    Registrant Name: WHOIS AGENT
    Registrant Organization: WHOIS PRIVACY PROTECTION SERVICE, INC.
    Registrant Street: PO BOX 639
    Registrant Street: C/O EASTASIATRIBUNE.COM
    Registrant City: KIRKLAND
    Registrant State/Province: WA
    Registrant Postal Code: 98083
    Registrant Country: US
    Registrant Phone: +1.4252740657
    Registrant Phone Ext: 
    Registrant Fax: +1.4259744730
    Registrant Fax Ext:
    Registrant Email: 
    Registry Admin ID: 
    Admin Name: WHOIS AGENT
    Admin Organization: WHOIS PRIVACY PROTECTION SERVICE, INC.
    Admin Street: PO BOX 639
    Admin Street: C/O EASTASIATRIBUNE.COM
    Admin City: KIRKLAND
    Admin State/Province: WA
    Admin Postal Code: 98083
    Admin Country: US
    Admin Phone: +1.4252740657
    Admin Phone Ext: 
    Admin Fax: +1.4259744730
    Admin Fax Ext:
    Admin Email: 
    Registry Tech ID: 
    Tech Name: WHOIS AGENT
    Tech Organization: WHOIS PRIVACY PROTECTION SERVICE, INC.
    Tech Street: PO BOX 639
    Tech Street: C/O EASTASIATRIBUNE.COM
    Tech City: KIRKLAND
    Tech State/Province: WA
    Tech Postal Code: 98083
    Tech Country: US
    Tech Phone: +1.4252740657
    Tech Phone Ext: 
    Tech Fax: +1.4259744730
    Tech Fax Ext: 
    Tech Email: 
    Name Server: NS162249439.A2DNS.COM
    Name Server: NS162254252110.A2DNS.COM
    DNSSEC: unSigned
    Registrar Abuse Contact Email: 
    Registrar Abuse Contact Phone: +1.4252982646
    URL of the ICANN WHOIS Data Problem Reporting System: http://wdprs.internic.net/
    -----

See http://whois.domaintools.com/eastasiatribune.com

The WHOIS information reveals that East Asia Tribune’s domain was purchased only last March 23, 2016. I’ll just leave that here and let that bit of info speak for itself.

IP ADDRESS AND WEB HOST

Now let’s check their hosting. A quick ping of their domain reveals their current IP address;

   -----
    admin:~ admin$ ping www.eastasiatribune.com
    PING eastasiatribune.com (162.254.252.110): 56 data bytes
    64 bytes from 162.254.252.110: icmp_seq=0 ttl=43 time=260.662 ms
    64 bytes from 162.254.252.110: icmp_seq=1 ttl=43 time=237.314 ms
    64 bytes from 162.254.252.110: icmp_seq=2 ttl=43 time=258.832 ms
    64 bytes from 162.254.252.110: icmp_seq=3 ttl=43 time=259.325 ms
    ^C
    --- eastasiatribune.com ping statistics ---
    4 packets transmitted, 4 packets received, 0.0% packet loss
    round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 237.314/254.033/260.662/9.676 ms
    -----

A quick look under the hood reveals their site is running on WordPress which is fine by me (Note: CNN and NY Times are also on WordPress but on VIP WordPress). East Asia Tribune’s servers were slow to respond and at times didn’t respond at all, which rules out VIP hosting. And in checking their IP address, I was able to get the following information about their web host;

   -----
    NetRange: 162.254.248.0 - 162.254.255.255
    CIDR: 162.254.248.0/21
    NetName: INTERNET-BLK-A2HOS-7
    NetHandle: NET-162-254-248-0-1
    Parent: NET162 (NET-162-0-0-0-0)
    NetType: Direct Allocation
    OriginAS: AS55293
    Organization: A2 Hosting, Inc. (A2HOS)
    RegDate: 2014-05-06
    Updated: 2014-06-05
    Ref: https://whois.arin.net/rest/net/NET-162-254-248-0-1

    OrgName: A2 Hosting, Inc.
    OrgId: A2HOS
    Address: P.O. Box 2998
    City: Ann Arbor
    StateProv: MI
    PostalCode: 48106
    Country: US
    RegDate: 2004-03-16
    Updated: 2013-03-13
    Comment: http://www.a2hosting.com
    Ref: https://whois.arin.net/rest/org/A2HOS

    OrgAbuseHandle: NETWO5169-ARIN
    OrgAbuseName: Network Operations
    OrgAbusePhone: +1-734-222-4678 
    OrgAbuseEmail: 
    OrgAbuseRef: https://whois.arin.net/rest/poc/NETWO5169-ARIN

    OrgTechHandle: CUNDI1-ARIN
    OrgTechName: Cundiff, David 
    OrgTechPhone: +1-734-222-4678 
    OrgTechEmail: 
    OrgTechRef: https://whois.arin.net/rest/poc/CUNDI1-ARIN

    OrgNOCHandle: CUNDI1-ARIN
    OrgNOCName: Cundiff, David 
    OrgNOCPhone: +1-734-222-4678 
    OrgNOCEmail: 
    OrgNOCRef: https://whois.arin.net/rest/poc/CUNDI1-ARIN

    RTechHandle: CUNDI1-ARIN
    RTechName: Cundiff, David 
    RTechPhone: +1-734-222-4678 
    RTechEmail: 
    RTechRef: https://whois.arin.net/rest/poc/CUNDI1-ARIN
    -----

See http://whois.domaintools.com/162.254.252.110

From what I see on the whois of their IP address, this website is hosted in the United States through a company called A2 Hosting. The hosting company seems legit and has some track record to speak for itself. But I’ve no experience hosting any of my websites with them so I wouldn’t have a first-hand account of how well they are as web hosts.

I also don’t think an established news organization based in Shanghai would run their website from the United States on what could be a single virtual server or worse, shared hosting. Plus, a news outfit that had been operating since 1972 (as they’ve claimed in their about page) would’ve gone through what other publications have gone through from the onset of the WWW-era to present and must’ve already gone online for some time now.

Running a serious online publication with a reputation that spans decades is challenging. You need redundant server resources that can handle loads of traffic. Linking with a reputable CDN (Content Delivery Network) is a must have.

At the moment, I don’t see their servers serving cached content on any of the major CDNs being used by larger news organizations.

UNDER ATTACK, DDOS FROM THE DPRK

East Asia Tribune, through their Facebook page claims that their web servers were being DDoS’d by the North Koreans as their servers were running slow and at times refused to load at all.

From their Facebook page;

Once again, we regret to report that our website is down. It appears the firewall has been breached by another attack originating from a North Korean IP address. We will update all once our server is back online, and please accept our apologies for the interruption.
Update: Our IT department advises that the intrusion has now been resolved, and the site should be accessible once more. If there are any further attacks, we will update this post.

Now it’s easy to blame a rouge, isolated, state that’s technically at war with the rest of the world, as to have been behind attacks on their servers, but I doubt this being true at all. Remember, their post have been shared over 16k times and that would’ve been enough to bring down any basic WordPress installation.

Then there’s this site that tracks known DDoS attacks in real time and any major news organization that has some reputation would’ve required a really huge DDos attack and that would’ve registered on their network. Something would’ve turned up elsewhere citing a DDoS attack from the North Koreans.

(See source).

Someone will have to correct me on this but I’d assume a massive North Korean DDoS attack would instead use China as a springboard for attacks since its infrastructure must practically go through China.

SO WHAT GIVES? I THOUGHT YOU LIKED THE STORY?

Honestly, I enjoyed reading through the material and I am still waiting for the next batch posts that would tell if they got Sun-Young out of the DPRK or if they all died trying. Hey, if it turned out that way, Chu Jingyi, whoever he is, that would’ve been something, a really nice piece of fiction.

But I just really don’t like getting fooled into thinking something is legit, and that has really gotten to my nerves. Their article was well-written enough, let’s give them that. However, this is a work of fiction, their entire outfit is ficticious, and some 20 minutes of checking on who they were was enough for me to arrive at this conclusion.

For a moment these guys got through my B.S. detector for brief period of time and I fell for it. Now I just have to be more careful in the future.

Discussion


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