The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

North Korean official reportedly executed with a flamethrower

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers an annual New Year’s Day message in Pyongyang, North Korea. He allegedly executed a political rival with a flamethrower — but such outlandish charges have proved false before.

The theatrics of North Korea’s repressive regime never fail to get attention, but Monday’s news raised — or lowered — the bar.

According to this report in one of South Korea’s leading newspapers, The Chosun Ilbo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s administration shuttered a bureaucracy once headed by Kim’s recently-executed uncle and killed or imprisoned 11 high-ranking officials.

The morbid twist: Quoting an anonymous source, the paper reported that O Sang Hon, the deputy public security minister, was “executed by flamethrower.”

If true, the killing shows the chilling lengths to which Kim is willing to go to expunge any trace of his executed uncle, Jang Song Thaek, once a powerful player in North Korean politics. Now, months after Jang’s execution and his temporary erasure from state media, Jang’s older sister and her husband — North Korea’s ambassador to Cuba, Jon Yong Jin — have also reportedly been executed.

But if the story’s false, it would be at least the third time in as many months that an apocryphal tale involving North Korea has caught fire in today’s media, which rewards outlandish stories — regardless of their veracity — with clicks, shares and likes.

Earlier this year, Western media outlets incorrectly reported that Kim had unleashed 120 starving dogs on political rivals as a means of execution. This initial NBC News report earned 44,000 likes. The network’s piece refuting its earlier report published three days later got fewer than 200.

Then, last month, another report emerged saying that that Kim had decreed all men must emulate his business-on-the-sides, party-on-the-top haircut. It was also false.

The frequency of incorrect stories about North Korea illustrates the country’s isolation and the difficulties Western journalists have covering it. Add to that the nation’s predilection for hyperbole — “the world will suffer an unimaginable catastrophe if war breaks out on [its] peninsula,” its government said Sunday — and just about anything involving the country seems believable.

Yet, the flamethrower execution tale is in some ways plausible. For one, the story was reported by a well-known source which has been closely following Kim’s purges of his uncle’s closest aides. Earlier this week — days before the flamethrower tale — it published another story that said he was poised to execute an additional “200 core supporters” of his uncle.

The South Korean newspaper claims this current purge will be followed by another. The first one earlier this year targeted Kim’s uncle and his family.

“Extensive executions have been carried out for relatives of Jang Song Taek,” one anonymous source told the South Korean news agency Yonhap in January. “All relatives of Jang have been put to death, including even children.”

The third purge will “target his [uncle’s] supporters in provincial chapters of the Workers Party,” North Korea’s ruling party.