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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.

Kim Jong-Un overseeing a live fire military drill in March 2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

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.