The big news out of North Korea today is that, according to the Strait Times, Kim Jong-un fed his uncle to 120 hungry dogs after he was purged from the North Korean leadership.
According to the report, Jang Song-taek was stripped naked and thrown into a cage with his aides, then dogs that had been starved for three days were set on them. The whole execution process apparently took around an hour, during which Kim and 300 other officials watched.
It’s an incredible twist to the already incredible story of Jang, once one of the most powerful men in North Korea before he was purged and executed at the tail end of last year. But you have to wonder — could it possibly be true?
To start with, there are many strange aspects to the report. For example, while the Strait Times article has made headlines over the world today, it was actually first published on December 24. Then, while the Singaporean newspaper is a fairly well-respected newspaper in itself, the actual reporting for this story it cites a December 12 article in Wen Wei Po, a Hong Kong-based newspaper supportive of the Chinese government. In studies of the different credibility ratings of Hong Kong newspapers, Wen Wei Po consistently ranks near the bottom of the tables.
Over at NK News, Chad O’Carroll has spoken to a number of North Korea experts about the report and its trustworthiness. The results are decidedly mixed, though one expert, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at the University of Leeds Aidan Foster-Carter, points out that North Korea has released a number of videos of effigies of South Korean officials being ravaged by dogs — so, there may be a kernel of truth to the method at least, though you have to wonder how practical execution of a live human by dog really is.
The sad reality is that this rumour, like many that come out of North Korea, is almost completely unverifiable. Few foreign journalists work inside North Korea. The Associated Press is the only Western news organisations with a bureau there, and Chinese and Russian news agencies are constrained by their own government’s policies censorship. North Korea’s own reporting is incomplete and suspect.
Thus, many experts view the more absurd stories that come out of North Korea with trepidation. Last year, when there were rumours that Kim may have had his ex-girlfriend (or rather, rumoured ex-girlfriend) executed, many North Korea watchers expressed disbelief. “I don’t trust these sources,” says Steven Herman, formerly Voice of America’s Korea correspondent, told Business Insider at the time. “Even mainstream media in South Korea has repeatedly been wrong on these sensationalistic stories originating from the North.”
Others pointed to the fact that the girlfriend execution story, and others like it (such as the execution of an army minister by “mortar round” story from earlier in 2013) appear to have originated from the South Korean intelligence services, an obviously biased and not always trustworthy source.
That said, it’d be wrong to discount this story completely. Many foreign observers expressed doubt when rumours of Jang’s purge and trial began to circulate and were surprised when the North Korean state news agency published a story not only confirming the purge and adding that Jang had been executed. There are also the widely accepted stories of the horrors from the North Korean prison camp system, some of which are just as horrific and brutal as the story of Jang’s execution.
Ultimately, North Korea is a strange place — and sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
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