The 6 Most Absurd Military Hoaxes By North Korea And Iran

How do rogue states compete with a superpower? Photoshop, apparently.

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Doctoring photographs is a great April Fools’ Day prank, but for some dictatorships it’s a way of life.

In modern times, the best government photoshop jobs have been Iranian and North Korean. (No, Iran, you can’t just copy-paste extra missiles into a photo.) Here are six of the most ridiculously fake images from the past few years.

Iranian Missile Test, 2008

The first, the best. In early July 2008, Sepah News, the media arm of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, released a photo of four missiles being launched. The image soon graced the fronta pages of several major newspapers. Skeptics thought something was odd and immediately began picking apart the failed photoshop attempt involved. A cursory look at the original photo revealed that the third rocket from the left was exactly the same down to the exhaust trail as the second rocket, and the cloud of smoke beneath it was copy-pasted from the smoke on the right. This was the military equivalent of disguising a “D” on a report card as an “A,” and jokers across the internet had a field day poking fun at what Iran surely hoped was as intimidating show of force. Soon, collections of parody photoshopped images found their way around the internet. Why fake it? First, the media fell for it, which means that even though the hoax was revealed, western media was culpable for running the story without fact-checking it. Everyone left this exchange with a bit of egg on their face. More importantly, the missile launch was digitally edited because one of the missiles failed, and failure to launch is always a little embarrassing. The missiles tested were long-range Shabab-3s, and a successful test would be a nice scary show of force. But a just mostly-successful launch? Policy makers and analysts would immediately turn to discussing technological failure, and the big scary message is undermined. Of course, that also happens when an image is revealed to have been edited, but at least Iran got a good news cycle before game was up.

Iranian Koker 1 Drone, 2012

In early November 2012, Iranian media reported on a new vertical takeoff and landing drone, called the Koker-1. Only one teensy problem–the only proof of its existence was a really lazy Photoshop job. As recounted by the Atlantic Wirehere, the image looks almost identical to a picture of a drone from Chiba University in Japan. Whoops. Why fake it? I could guess about fancy trick reasons, like antagonizing the United States right after an election, but Occam’s Razor is probably right here. Iran released an edited image of a drone because they didn’t have the drone, and the Iranian government really, really wanted to scare people into thinking they did.

Iranian Stealth Fighter, 2013

In February this year, Iran released photos of a brand-new stealth fighter called the Qaher-313. With slick lines and a modern shape, it looked like a remarkable feat of technological progress…until someone stood next to it, and it appeared to be about 75 percent the size of a working plane. Or until someone watched this video, purportedly of the Qaher-313 in flight, but probably just a remote-control plane: Besides those two dead giveaways, there is this picture, where the Qaher-313 conveniently flies over a mountain at the exact same angle as a stock photo. Why fake it? For starters, Iran was able to get this awesome headline from Business Insider: “Iran’s New Qaher 313 Stealth Fighter Would Be Perfect For Attacking The US Navy,” which is true except for the fact that the fighter almost certainly doesn’t work and so would be terrible at any task requiring it to, well, work. Here, too, there is a bit of deception. Iran doesn’t need stealth fighters or flashy technology to attack the U.S. Navy. Instead, simple small fast boats combined with regular cruise missiles and underwater mines will do the job far better than a fancy stealth fighter. Thanks to this, it doesn’t matter than Iran’s fancy stealth fighter doesn’t work – all it has to do is scare the U.S. into preparing for a threat it will never face.

North Korea, 2008

Of course, Iran isn’t the only nation to photoshop its own strength. In late 2008, North Korea released a series of photos of Kim Jong-Il, to prove that their Dear leader was in fact perfectly fine and not sick from a stroke. This is one of the easier ones to spot, as the touch-up artist who added Jong-Il into the picture clearly missed the knee-level line that runs behind the soldiers he is supposedly with. Time ran a whole feature on edited photos of Kim Jong-Il from this period. Why fake it? One of the big problems dictatorships have is their dependence on a single national leader as unifying strongman. If the leader gets sick and can’t present a strong face in public, the whole structure of the regime could collapse. While the photoshop attempts may be easily debunked to an outside audience, for North Koreans cut off from outside communication, these photos proved that their leader was alive and well.

North Korea, 2011

Turns out Kim Jong-Il was, in fact, quite sick, and photoshopping him looking at things wasn’t enough to keep him alive. When he died in 2011, North Korea had a tremendous state funeral for him. Everything about this funeral had to be perfect, including the doctored images of perfect, orderly crowds attending the funeral procession. In the above photo, a cluster of photographers and not-quite-attentive mourners have been erased. Why fake it? If having a sick leader is a weak moment for a dictatorship, having a dead one is the weakest. While Kim Jong-Un has since assumed power, securing his hold on power during that transition required projecting the appearance of tight control. What better way to do that then show the world and his people that nothing was out of place as his father’s funeral?

North Korea, 2013

Kim Jong-Un hasn’t ruled North Korea for long, but with his nuclear test, withdrawal from the Korean War armistice, and calls for missile readiness, normally calm people are worried that there might be a new outbreak of fighting on the Korean peninsula. To bolster his numbers and show military prowess, Jong-Un has borrowed a trick straight out of the Iranian playbook: photoshop. This photo shows eight North Korean hovercrafts storming a beach, but careful sleuthing reveals that almost all of them are editing tricks. Why fake it? North Korea is a really poor country, reduced to making diplomats sell drugs for money. If North Korea could afford more hovercrafts, I’m certain they would, but with tight finances and high tensions on the Korean peninsula, more income, ships, soldiers, or weapons are hard to come by fast enough. Photoshopping a stronger military, however, is basically free. It’s also militarily useless for anything except a bluff, but I’m firmly in the camp that believes this is all empty posturing anyway.
Kelsey D. Atherton
Kelsey D. Atherton

is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.