When it comes to fishy tales, piranhas often play a prominent role. Photo: iStock

So, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is apparently feeding treacherous generals to a swarm of piranha he keeps in a tank in his presidential palace.

According to a “scoop” by British tabloid the Daily Star, after ordering aides to come up with new execution methods, Kim had a giant fish tank built inside one of his presidential palaces and stocked it with Brazilian piranha.

It was in this tank that an unfortunate general – a coup plotter, according to the report – met a gruesome fate.

After having had his arms and torso slashed with knives, he was hurled into the tank – The Daily Star reported – although “sources said it was unclear whether the general was killed by the fish, died from his wounds or drowned.”

Harrowing stuff – and a remarkable international news story.

Pulitzer Prize for The Daily Star?

What may be even more remarkable is that a British tabloid has cultivated sources – multiple sources, not only one – with access to, or who have contacts within, Kim’s inner sanctum. And one or more of these sources witnessed the grisly proceedings first hand.

Pulitzer Prize committee, please take note: This is high-risk, humanitarian reporting of the highest caliber. No other media in the world boasts such access inside one of the world’s most opaque, most brutal regimes.

Sensibly, The Daily Star did not reveal its sources. Given the very real risks North Koreans face in speaking to journalists, this is sound practice. Indeed, it is common, when reporting in, on or about North Korea to offer sources anonymity, due to the risks they and their families run if their names are revealed.

Granted, the piece also quotes an unnamed “UK intelligence” source. But that source would almost certainly not have provided the execution details, for no agency would take the risk of compromising an asset so deeply infiltrated in a target government.

However, having covered North Korea from Seoul for Asian, British, South Korean and US media for the last 17 years, I have a few misgivings about the story.

A few questions

Firstly, sourcing information from deep within a Northeast Asian dictatorship is hardly The Daily Star’s métier. The banner on the same page as the piranha story carried articles on the confessions of a gigolo, on “Argentina’s hottest weather girl” and on an incestuous YouTuber.

Secondly, the byline on the story belongs to one John Ward. Ward comes across as a jovial chap in a 2015 interview, but in it, he calls social media “a valuable source for news,” and – when asked by the interviewer – declines to detail his biggest scoop.

Thirdly, Ward’s story discusses execution methods used in North Korea. These include “blasting traitors to pieces with an anti-tank gun, feeding them alive to tigers, beheadings, hangings and burning prisoners to death with flame throwers.”

Let’s dissect this. There are, indeed, unsubstantiated rumors of execution by anti-aircraft guns, but not anti-tank guns, which are ancient weapons not found in the armories of modern armies.

Being fed alive to tigers is another new one on me and my colleagues, and none of us are familiar with beheadings or hangings. Most executions in North Korea are undertaken by firing squads. I have viewed secret-camera footage of such killings, and a state security official who defected once explained to me the procedure in detail.

Execution by flamethrower just may be credible. In the wake of an apparent 1995 coup attempt by North Korea’s 9th Corps, plotters were – it was rumored – burned alive.

Fourthly, subsequent paragraphs in the story raise questions about The Daily Star’s editorial accuracy. Kim’s dastardly execution method, the piece suggests, was inspired by the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, in which victims were dropped into a shark tank. In fact, “execution by piranha” featured in an earlier 007 thriller, You Only Live Twice.

If The Daily Star can’t get information on an icon of British pop culture straight, can it be trusted to reveal the darkest secrets of Kim’s execution chambers?

The return of ‘yellow peril’ journalism?

In my opinion, the story is poppycock. Moreover, it is in poor taste. It reads not only like yellow journalism, but “yellow peril” journalism – with Kim as the modern-day Fu Manchu.

Certain media seem to think that because the leader sports such a bizarre look, because North Korea is a dictatorship by virtually every metric, and because the country is so isolated, any lurid rumor is fair game for news. After all, who is going to disprove a story about a sinister Asian despot lording it over a far-off, closed-gates state?

One notorious piece of fake news circulated following the execution of long-time regime insider and Kim uncle Jang Song Thaek in 2013. Many media – not only the tabloids – reported that Jang had been torn to death by dogs. The source of that information, it was subsequently discovered, was a joke circulating on the Chinese internet.

Yet, regardless of method, Jang was certainly executed at the orders of his nephew. He did die.

And this is why The Daily Star’s story, with its macabre and titillating details, leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Terrible things truly do happen in North Korea. It is unnecessary to make anything up.

The country is run by a de facto, third-generation neo-monarchy. The regime invests in weapons of mass destruction, but not foodstuffs or medicines. A class system prevails under which the elite live hugely privileged lives, while among the peasantry, malnutrition is rampant.

Due to the failure of state economic policies, a grey economy has appeared in which ordinary people are forced to bribe to survive, leaving them at the mercy of officials.

Citizens are required to spy on one another. They enjoy minimal freedom of association and no freedom of information, of travel, of expression, of religion.

Those who try to escape face the peril of sex trafficking in China, or, if repatriated, harsh treatment in a judicial system untrammeled by due process, that wields the death sentence without oversight.

As I write this, I am looking at  report from an NGO, “Mapping the Fate of the Dead: Killings and Burials in North Korea,” covering state killing sites. (In this report, based on hundreds of defector interviews that took place over four years, there is no mention of piranha.)

North Korea is an actual, ongoing East Asian tragedy. It is not funny.

And it is far from hidden. Reporters can source much of this material, first-hand, from defectors, while NGOs can provide hideous details of torture and abuse.

The credibility gap

To be fair, serious media did not pick up The Daily Star’s story – although The Sun and The Daily Mail gleefully jumped on the bandwagon. However, it is not only British tabloids that run stories based on dubious intelligence.

Recently, a report in a major, “serious” newspaper in South Korea alleged the purging of senior cadres. That report was widely picked up by top-tier global media, but not Asia Times – which considered the report questionable from the start.

Embarrassingly for the newspaper, one of the “purged” officials re-appeared in public only days later, in the presence of Kim.

A colleague spoke to a South Korean reporter who once nailed a similar scoop about an execution in North Korea which was subsequently disproven when the victim reappeared, very much alive.

The source for his scoop, the reporter admitted, was a Chinese businessman, who had heard a rumor in China.

I have also experienced unprofessional editing. Some years ago, amid military tensions, a British broadsheet commissioned a story on the atmosphere in Seoul, so I described what I saw, which was very little concern. The editor, unhappy with this undramatic piece, instead ran an article by a junior reporter in London, declaring that “war was imminent” in Korea.

Astonished, I did some digging. The reporter’s source, it transpired, was a travel agent who had received an internet alert from an unknown source. Needless to say, war did not break out.

Yet, the most extraordinary stories from or about North Korea sometimes turn out to be true. Even in his most fevered imaginings, Bond creator Ian Fleming could barely have invented an assassination using a binary nerve agent deployed by a duo of beauties. But that very fate befell Kim’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumpur airport in 2017.

This is why, when reporting on North Korea, it is critical for reporters to warn their readers about the impossibility of checking facts, and also to include expert commentary, for North Korea watchers have a nose for what is credible and what is not.

With all this said, I advise readers to turn their hogwash antennae to their most sensitive pitches when reading sensationalist reporting on North Korea.

In the meantime, should you seek a journalist who can offer real insight into North Korea, I’d suggest George Orwell.

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