A disturbing new rumor has emerged about the fate Jang Song Taek, the recently deceased uncle of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. So disturbing that it probably isn't even true — and it's certainly impossible to confirm — but also too outrageous to ignore.
A pro-government Chinese paper, Wen Wei Po, has reported that Kim Jong-un's uncle Jang Song Taek was sentenced to "quan jue," or death by dogs. Specifically, he and five other "co-conspirators" were tossed naked into a cage filled with 120 ravenous dogs who had been starved for three days prior to the event. The dogs then ate them up "completely" while Kim patiently watched for over an hour. Singapore's Strait Times laid out Wen Wei Po's claim and helped them spread like wildfire around the globe.
The allegation was met with horror, yes, but mostly with skepticism. No other outlets have been able to corroborate the report, and the Strait Times explained in their coverage that China may have ulterior motives in (further) smearing the DPRK's regime:
In purging a top official known for his close ties with Beijing in such a brutal manner, Pyongyang did not hide its antagonism towards China. The official litany of Jang's treason implicated China three times. Jang was accused of underselling coal and other natural resources for which China was virtually the sole customer. He was also charged with "selling off the land of Rason economic and trade zone to a foreign country for a period of five decades under the pretext of paying debts." Finally, he was accused of selling precious metals, thus disrupting the country's financial stability. In fact, China purchased some of North Korea's gold reserves several months ago.
So if you weren't already skeptical of the story, the paper may have a motive for making it up. Even in early December, before Jang's execution had been confirmed, there were rumblings of an upcoming fallout between the nations. Time's Emily Rauhala wrote on December 9 that Jang's removal could mean bad news for Sino-North Korean ties:
Jang was the principal North Korean backer for a joint economic zone near the Chinese city of Dandong. The site, officially called the Hwanggumpyong Island Special Economic Zone, is supposed to bring North Koreans to work in Chinese factories and even play host to some banks.
There's also way the story spread. The original report is more than a week old, but did not receive much attention until yesterday, when journalists on Twitter attempted to unpack the implications of the single-source allegation, and the meaning of the delayed reaction to such a provocative accusation. Even allowing for the slowness of translation, that's a stretch.
@margafret and this report is from december 24th. i doubt it would've gone unnoticed for 9 days if it were true.— Slade Sohmer (@SladeHV) January 3, 2014
Some on Twitter dismissed it outright:
North Korea is a bizarre place. We get that. But Kim Jong Un DID NOT kill his uncle via starving dogs. Who comes up with this crap?— Benjamin R. Young (@DubstepInDPRK) January 3, 2014
Notably, the point of contention is not whether or not Jang was killed, but how. North Korea took responsibility for the killing, saying Jang deserved what he got for doing treasonous things like "attempting to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab supreme power.” Probably, he was just trying to take on a larger role in the country's mineral export business.
Unfortunately, it's unlikely that we will have clarity over the issue. But like so many or the stories that come out of North Korea, the crazier they are, the more Westerners want to believe. We know so little about the country (by their own design), that almost anything we hear about them seems plausible. The "Hermit Kingdom" is notorious for making their own outrageous claims about of their own powers, and China's own press transparency is questionable at best. But we do know that awful, unspeakable things happen in North Korean prison camps, so maybe the regime might be be capable of a punishment this sick?
No matter the truth, reports like this one point out, again, the scope of North Korean dysfunction. That we are even considering the possibility that Kim killed his uncle by throwing him in a pit of starving dogs (instead of traditional execution by firing squad) attests to both that nation's madness and our own obsessions with it.