You can do a lot in journalism with the word “report.” For instance, see NBC's “Kim Jong Un's executed uncle was eaten alive by 120 hungry dogs: report”.
Did this really happen? We don't know! Experts seem skeptical. It first appeared in English in the Singapore-based Straits Times, which cited a three-week-old story in the pro-Beijing Hong Kong paper Wen Wei Po, which was itself pretty thinly sourced. Perhaps not quite grasping how the viral Internet works, the Straits Times reporter chose to lead with how the execution would “adversely affect bilateral relations” between North Korea and China rather than the naked man being eaten alive by ravenous dogs.
For what it's worth, a New York Times report from last month cited “South Korean intelligence officials and news media” reported that Jang Song-thaek's aides were executed by anti-aircraft machine gun but that he himself was killed by “more traditional means.”
But we don't know for sure that it didn't happen. There have been other reports of exotic execution methods used against North Korean senior officials. Brutal torture is certainly common in the North Korean penal system.
Which brings us back to the central dilemma of following news out of the world's most politically isolated country. The majority of the most outrageous stories we get filter out through defectors or experts with definite agendas to the South Korean or Chinese media and are then repeated by Western newspapers or blogs.
The North Korean government doesn't bother to correct anything written about it abroad, and it's usually impossible for foreign outlets to independently verify whether, say, Kim Jong Un's ex-girlfriend was executed for making a sex tape. So given the Internet's insatiable appetite for weird North Korea stories, it becomes a bit of a free-for-all. The North Korean government does so many bizarre things we can confirm that a few of these dubious rumors must surely be true, right?
In any case, I'm still highly skeptical about this one. The NBC article with the headline above noted that “The report could not be independently confirmed by NBC News on Friday.” I wouldn't hold my breath.
Josh Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.