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Friday, January 3, 2014

Inside the Tale of North Korea Execution by Ravenous Dog

Jang Song-thaek, in blue, being escorted in court on Dec. 12, 2013. He was later executed.Yonhap/Agence France-Presse â€" Getty Images Jang Song-thaek, in blue, being escorted in court on Dec. 12, 2013. He was later executed.

BEIJING â€" There is no end to shocking stories from North Korea, many involving the myriad cruelties of the brutal police state as reported by defectors. But the latest tale â€" a news media report that the young North Korean leader might have had his uncle torn apart by ravenous dogs while he watched â€" may say less about the North than what outsiders have come to expect of it.

Here’s how it all started. More than three weeks ago, a Hong Kong newspaper, Wen Wei Po, published an article saying the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, had ordered his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, to be stripped naked, then thrown into a cage where he and his five closest aides were set upon by 120 dogs that had been not been fed for days. The men were completely devoured in front of Mr. Kim, the Hong Kong report said.

The death-by-dog story got more traction online starting Dec. 24, when a commentary published in The Straits Times, based in Singapore, said the fact that Wen Wei Po ran such a lurid article was a sign of the Chinese Communist Party’s “displeasure” at North Korea. It called Wen Wei Po the party’s “official mouthpiece” in Hong Kong.

A picture released by the North Korean Central News Agency shows Kim Jong-un delivering a New Year's speech in which he defended the  execution of Jang Song-thaek.Kcna/European Pressphoto Agency A picture released by the North Korean Central News Agency shows Kim Jong-un delivering a New Year’s speech in which he defended the  execution of Jang Song-thaek.

Though Wen Wei Po has taken editorial stands that favor party policy, it is not an official mouthpiece of Beijing. And some scholars in Hong Kong have criticized what they call the newspaper’s low editorial standards. (It is true, however, that analysts have been saying for months that China, North Korea’s patron, is unhappy with Mr. Kim for ignoring its entreaties to stop its nuclear weapons and missile tests.)

The Straits Times commentary brought more attention to Wen Wei Po’s North Korea report. Then on Friday, some Western news organizations ran stories about that original article. NBC News, for example, summarized the article in an online report co-written from Beijing, with the caveat that it had no independent confirmation of the assertions.

In a possible sign of how speculative the dog story might be, it was not picked up by mainstream South Korean news media, which does report many other stories from the North, citing defectors or other sources, that are difficult or impossible to confirm because of Pyongyang’s stranglehold on information. For the South Korean press, it seems, the dog story was too sensational even by North Korean standards. No official in Seoul has come out to lend credence to the report, although South Korean officials have briefed the press on intelligence reports of Mr. Jang’s execution.

It is worth noting that feeding people to animals, an ancient Roman specialty in the day, is not at all normal in North Korea. In literature from ancient Korea, there are references of bodies, not live humans, being thrown to dogs.

Of course, North Korea being North Korea, it is impossible to know for sure what happened to Mr. Kim’s powerful uncle, including whether dogs were involved. The state is considered one of the hardest in the world for spies to penetrate, and the leadership is notoriously secretive.

In this case, the country may have contributed to outsiders’ willingness to give the story some credence. North Korea has no qualms about using extreme language about traitors and how they should die. (The North has said Mr. Jang was a traitor who was trying to oust his nephew in a coup.) North Korean news media once released video footage of an effigy of Lee Myung-bak, the conservative former South Korean president whom the North loathed as a “traitor,” being attacked by dogs, run over by a tank and stoned by protesters. His pictures were used as targets at North Korean firing ranges.

After Mr. Jang was purged during a Dec. 8 party meeting, North Korean news media cited some citizens calling for “tearing the traitor Jang’s body to pieces and throwing them into a boiler.” When a North Korean military court sentenced him to death, its verdict said those who betrayed Mr. Kim “should be given no place to be buried.” Such extreme language helped give rise to wild speculation in South Korea about how Mr. Jang was killed. Some unconfirmed South Korean news reports said he might have been executed by machine guns or mortars and that his body might have been further damaged by a flamethrower.

Still, all that anyone seems to agree on is that Mr. Jang is dead.

On Dec. 23, The New York Times reported that the killing had its roots in a clash between Mr. Jang and Mr. Kim over control of natural resources, notably coal and fishing grounds. The report, which cited American and South Korean officials, said there had even been a firefight between armed men loyal to each of the two men. When the dust settled, Mr. Jang’s allies were detained, and two of his lieutenants were executed by a firing squad that may have used antiaircraft machine guns to do the deed. Firing squads are a usual method of execution in North Korea, although employing such large weaponry would be unusual.

Days later, Mr. Jang was publicly denounced, tried and executed. The official report of the execution by the state-run Korean Central News Agency did not say how Mr. Jang was executed. It did say he was a “traitor” and “worse than a dog.”