Why is the media so easily taken in by stories about North Korea?

It now appears that the story about Kim Jong-Un's uncle being executed by a pack of 120 ravenous dogs can be traced back to a Weibo post by a Chinese satirist.

As far as I've been able to discover, North Korea's baby-faced dictator Kim Jong Un has not actually denied feeding his uncle to a pack of 120 ravenous dogs, as was widely reported in the English-language media at the end of last week (such as this report from the Independent).

The state's offical news agency has had more pressing matters on its time than refuting the extravagant claim – reminiscent of something between a Bond villain and one of the more debauched Roman emperors – that Little Kim sat calmly along with his retinue for a whole hour while the hounds finished off Jang Song Thaek and five of his "accomplices". Instead, it has shown us pictures of the beloved leader admiring a new ski-lift and brought the world news of a grand ceremony in Pyongyang during which North Korean fisherman were congratulated for being "frontline soldiers defending socialism" who had "successfully materialised the intention of the supreme commander to supply abundant quantities of fishes". At this commendation, incidentally, the fishermen were said to have been "overwhelmed with tears of great emotion and joy". As for Kim himself, he's now looking forward to celebrating his birthday watching a basketball match organised by his close and admiring friend Dennis Rodman.

Despite the lack of a denial, most media outlets reporting the lurid details of Uncle Jang's execution did so with at least a show of scepticism, noting for example that the claims were first reported last month by a Hong Kong newspaper noted for its closeness to Beijing, not to mention the fact that death by dogs sounded a little extreme even for a regime renowned for an imaginative approach to execution. But there seemed little reason to dismiss it out of hand. Earlier accounts describing how Kim had members of a pop group (including a former girlfriend) executed by machine gun fire, or a former defence minister Kim Chol blown up by mortar round, have met with general acceptance. And the information that Jang's fate was a procedure known as "Quan Jue" offered an element of verisimilitude.  The newsworthiness of the story was not in doubt. As the old Korean journalists' maxim might well it, "Man eats dog is not a story; dog eats man is."

One Korean expert, Aidan Foster-Carter of Leeds University, was prepared to conceed that "it might be true", if only because similar treatment had been meted out to an effigy of the South Korean president, though he thought it on balance unlikely. The independent website NK News quoted Dr Leonid Petrov of the Australia National University in Canberra as being more convinced, commenting that it "sounds credible, particularly given the horror stories coming out of North Korean labor camps where dogs are fed by political prisoners". (I think that means that dogs are fed by the corpses of political prisoners.)

In the absence of a source for the story, official or otherwise, there was no definitive reason to believe or disbelieve it. Instead attention has focused on what the emergence of the story, in a Beijing-friendly Hong Kong newspaper, suggests about deteriorating relationship between China and its wayward (and increasingly embarrassing) client state. But the truth has now been revealed, thanks to the detective work of Trevor Powell. Powell has traced the original story to a post on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, Tencent Weibo, dated 11 December and attributed to a satirist going by the name of Pyongyang Choi Seongho. In a further complication, it appears that the person responsible for the posting was not even the well-known satirist but rather "a copycat account mooching off his good name", making the story not just a spoof, but a hoax spoof. 

When the Hong Kong newspaper Wen Weipo – a tabloid whose credibility has been questioned by several critics of the Jang execution story – reported the spoof item, it quoted Pyongyang Choi Seongho as the source and reproduced the "Tweet" in full. This should have been enough to alert readers to the satirical nature of the claims. Nevertheless, the story was repeated on Christmas Eve, with apparent seriousness, by the English-language Singapore Straits Times, from where, after a week's delay, it exploded onto the international media. 

Powell thinks it amusing that musing that "given our faith in modern global news media to get to the bottom of a story, no one has actually gone back to the Wen Weipo article and caught this". He blames the "linguistic wall" that separated the original Hong Kong report and the Singporean version, while wondering at the apparent inability of the international media to find a Chinese speaker to read the original report.  No doubt this is true. It must also be the case, though, that the story was so good in the telling, both in its goryness and in the way it chimed with the idea of a crazed autocrat restrained by no legal or moral scruple, that parts of the media preferred not to inquire too closely lest it turned to dust in the sunlight. Kim Jong Un's penchant for whimsical methods of execution has become part of his public image, like Jean-Bédel Bokassa's alleged cannibalism or Catherine the Great's supposed love of horses.

Given the unlikelihood of an anyonymous sock-puppet account based in China having access to details of North Korean events unknown to the rest of the world, it can now safely be said that Jang Song Thaek was not in fact fed to 120 starving dogs. But questions remain. Such as why hasn't North Korea taken the trouble to deny the story? 

The secretiveness with which the regime surrounds itself isn't a sufficient explanation. Jang was stripped of power and dispatched in an unusually public fashion. Indeed it was widely noted at the time that Kim was deliberately using the purge, which might be seen as evidence of splits at the top of the regime, to cement his reputation for ruthlessness. His youth and relative inexperience would seem to demand acts designed to impress both the North Korean elite and the wider world that despite his somewhat comical appearance he means business. 

Which suggests to me that, lurid and fallacious as it was, the story of Kim Jong Un sitting down to watch his uncle being stripped naked and torn apart by wild dogs may not be a million miles removed from the hereditary dictator's own preferred self-image. As Gaius Caligula, another youthful ruler around whom collected exaggerated legends of cruel depravity, is reported to have said, "Let them hate me, so long as they fear me" (oderint dum metuant). Like Kim, Caligula elevated craziness into an instrument of political power – at least until his bodyguards got fed up with it all and finished him off.

 

Kim Jong-Un overseeing a live fire military drill in March 2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
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There is one thing Donald Trump can't build a wall against

Muslim immigrants don't bring terrorism - ideology does. 

Rather than understanding the root of the Islamist extremist issue and examining the global scale of the challenge, one US presidential candidate has decided to pin his domestic security hopes on the demonisation of a particular group of people. 
 
The arrest of Ahmad Khan Rahami over the recent New York bombing, an Afghan-born naturalised US citizen, proved too tantalising an opportunity for the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to once again conflate terrorism and immigration. Taking aim at his rival Hillary Clinton, Trump claimed that she “wants to allow hundreds of thousands of these same people", people who he described as having hatred and sickness in their hearts.
 
It is unclear who exactly Mr Trump is referring to here, one can only assume that it is a reference to Muslims, more specifically those not born in the US, and their apparent deep-rooted hatred for all things American. These comments will no doubt strengthen support for his campaign among those who have remained supportive of his overtly anti-Muslim stance, but the reality is that Mr Trump is rather missing the point.
 
Trump’s insistence on profiling Muslims as a measure to curb terrorism is not merely offensive; it reinforces the "us versus them" rhetoric used by the very terrorists he is trying to defeat.
 
The attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando earlier this year was described as the deadliest mass shooting by a single attacker in American history. Omar Mateen, the perpetrator, was not an immigrant. Born in New York, Mateen was an American citizen by birth. This, however, did not stop him from killing dozens of innocent people and wounding many more. 
 
One of the most influential jihadi ideologues, certainly in the Western world, was in fact an American. Not a naturalised citizen, but a born American, Anwar al-Awlaki was a central figure in the propaganda output of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula. Awlaki’s ideas are reported to have been a significant factor in the radicalisation of the Tsarnaev brothers, the perpetrators of the deadly Boston Marathon bombing. 
 
Putting the spotlight on immigration as the most effective means to curb terrorism ignores the real problem; the ideology. The poisonous, divisive, and intolerant mindset that is at the heart of the matter is the real culprit. This ideology, which presents itself as a "true" reflection of Islam is nothing more than a politically motivated worldview that seeks to spread hatred and violence. 
 
Research from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics has shown that those individuals who buy into this worldview come from a multitude of backgrounds. Some are from poor backgrounds while others are from more affluent ones, some are well-educated while others aren’t. The truth is that there is no prototype terrorist - the common denominator, however, is that they share an ideology. Focusing on immigration as a source for terrorists fails to acknowledge the wide and varied pool from which they recruit.
 
The ideology, which perverts the shared religious heritage that 1.6bn Muslims around the world hold dear, is not simply a threat to the US, but to the world over. There is no wall high enough, no trench deep enough, and no bomb big enough to destroy this ideology. 
 
While the focus on Isis conjures images of the Middle East, this year alone we have witnessed deadly attacks committed by the group including Indonesia, Bangladesh, France, Germany, and Belgium. The ideology that drives the violence is transnational; it’s a global threat that necessitates a global response.
 
The transnational appeal and threat of this ideology is evident with the recent phenomena of online radicalisation. Men and women, boys and girls, have been lured by these ideas from the safety of their own homes, with these powerful ideas moving some to join causes in lands they have never visited. 
 
Recent attacks in France, Germany, and indeed the US, have demonstrated how items that can be obtained ordinarily, such as vehicles and knives, are being weaponised to cause maximum damage. But would a ban on knives and trucks be the solution? The only effective means for defeating terrorists is by challenging and dismantling their ideological appeal, effectively sapping the substance that fuels the violence.
 
Mr Trump, who may become Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most formidable army, must recognise that we are engaged in a battle of ideas, similar to that of the Cold War. A battle in which opposing worldviews are key, words are important, and taking control of the narrative is paramount.
 
In this battle of ideas, Mr Trump is not only hampering the global efforts against groups like Isis and its ilk, but actually reinforcing the ideas put forward by the extremists. Our leaders should not mirror the intolerant attitudes of our enemies or echo their binary worldview. 
Though, when it comes to the Republican candidate, his past statements on the topic indicate, perhaps, that this aim is overly ambitious.
 
Our response must be clear and robust, but we must first acknowledge who, or what, the enemy is. Muslims coming to the US are not the enemy, Muslims born in America are not the enemy, the enemy is the poisonous ideology that has manipulated Islam.
 
Defeating this transnational ideology requires alliances, not alienation. Mr Trump has expressed his commitment to work with allies in the Middle East to fight terrorism, but it is just as important to foster good relations with American Muslims. They can, and should, play an integral role in defeating Islamist extremism at home.

Mubaraz Ahmed is an analyst at the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics. He tweets at @MubarazAhmed.