It's been another weird week in news from the Hermit Kingdom. Outside observers were titillated by reports of the supposed punishment meted out on the North Korean defense chief, who was accused of treason, in part for napping during a high-level meeting, and reportedly executed in public with an anti-aircraft gun.
The story got lots of international attention Wednesday after it was apparently confirmed by intelligence sources in South Korea. On Thursday, though, South Korea's spy agency pushed back against the report, saying it could not confirm its details, and thereby cast the whole thing in doubt. This follows a similar episode last year when the world got very excited about the almost certainly spurious suggestion that the young North Korean despot Kim Jong Un had his uncle fed to a pack of dogs.
Pyongyang's leadership, which presides over the world's most closed and oppressed society, "invites such treatment," writes Korea scholar Andrei Lankov. We see North Korea as a monstrous, absurdist spectacle, an image reinforced by journalists' inability to do real reporting in the country.
Moreover, writes Lankov, "the government produces tons of comically inept propaganda (visit any North Korean official website to enjoy the style), and it is very repressive. There is little doubt that the regime is brutal and often acts in a peculiar way."
For a snapshot of the country's comically inept propaganda see a news bulletin published this week by the Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang's official mouthpiece. It's reproduced here in full:
Korea Boasts of Long History in Magic
Pyongyang, May 11 (KCNA) -- Korea has a long history in performing traditional magic.
It was well evidenced by an old album published by a neighboring country 1 500 years ago.
According to historical data, the magic developed to a higher level in the period of Koryo Kingdom (918-1392), the first unified state of the Korean nation.
Typical of the magic pieces were the magic with fire and the one with knife.
Today magic has made a big stride forward in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
To be sure, the KCNA's English translations are notoriously iffy and have launched all sorts of tittering in the past, including a flurry of articles after the supposed discovery of a unicorn lair by North Korean archaeologists in 2012.
But in a few short paragraphs here, the North Korean state news agency makes some wondrous claims. The details here are confusing -- what, for example, is the cryptic act of magic "with knife" -- and are based on the existence of some sort of old document in another country. How it leads to North Korea making "a big stride forward" in the realm of magic "today" is anyone's guess.
But it doesn't matter. It's all part of the strange, awful pantomime of a pariah state that can represent itself and its national ideology as it pleases. That's most intensely illustrated by the annual "Mass Games," a surreal totalitarian tableau involving tens of thousands of performers.
According to a 2011 report by the Associated Press, the highly technical stagecraft of those spectacles is rooted in a North Korean fondness for magic shows and circus stunts. The AP reported on the sidelines of what it deemed North Korea's "biggest magic show ever" -- an event full of slapstick comedy, dancing bears and magician disappearing acts.
"Like so many other things, it harkens back to a pre-electronic past when things were much simpler," Tony Namkung, a Korean American scholar, told AP at the time.
If you can't have your freedom, you can at least have your magic tricks.
Read more on North Korea: