On August 12, 2020, South Korea’s newspaper The Chosun Ilbo reported that the DPRK had “launched a clampdown on the ownership of pet dogs among the Pyongyang elite” as food supplies ran short. An unnamed source cited in the article stated that Kim Jong-un had “issued a ban on pet ownership in July, denouncing it as a tainted trend by bourgeois ideology”. Apparently, discontent among the North Korean populace has been growing with food supplies running short. Hence, the move was meant to appease them. After all, according to the aforementioned source, while “ordinary people raise pigs and livestock on their porches”, “high-ranking officials and the wealthy own pet dogs” (often expensive lapdogs flaunted “as status symbols”), thus stoking some resentment.
The report also said that authorities in North Korea either forced households with pets to give them up or confiscated the animals, which were subsequently put down, “sent to state-run zoos or sold to dog meat restaurants”. The source also claimed that pet owners were “cursing Kim Jong-un behind his back,” but there was, in fact, little they could do.
The breaking news was also reported in the Daily Mail, which referred to pet dogs in North Korea as a symbol of “capitalist decadence”. In addition, the article provided much needed context to this latest development. Citing a recent UN report, it said “that as many as 60 percent of North Korea’s 25.5 million people” were facing “widespread food shortages” that had been “worsened by international sanctions imposed on the regime for its nuclear missile programs”. The shortages were further aggravated by Pyongyang’s decision to close the border with China due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as severe flooding this summer, which wiped out “crops in the key agriculture regions” of the DPRK, thus prompting the leader “to feed victims with his own private grain reserves”. According to the Daily Mail, pork and beef were “an almost unheard-of luxury for most ordinary people” in North Korea, and “the culling of the dogs of Pyongyang” may have been designed “to stave off hunger in the coming months”.
This news spread far and wide and garnered an emotional response from hundreds of thousands of pet owners from all over the world, who must have empathized with their North Korean counterparts whose favorite animals had been confiscated by the government and perhaps sent to be butchered. Pictures of dogs in cages at a South Korean farm, featured in the Daily Mail article, must have also added fuel to the fire as more than 4000 comments were posted in response to it with some individuals expressing indignation and criticizing Kim Jong-un. There were also some attempts to discuss cultural and ideological differences between the DPRK and the West. In fact, even the China was mentioned, as during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong was the leader, pets, regarded as a bourgeois luxury, were slaughtered. A few people even suggested that the North Korean dictator was waging psychological warfare against his countrymen in order to see how much any given pet owner could handle. After all, giving away a much loved animal on orders from the party is equivalent to betraying a member of the family.
Still, any bad news about the DPRK should prompt one to check the accuracy and veracity of the information. In this particular case, our only source remains the unnamed one from The Chosun Ilbo.
In fact, it is a leading daily newspaper in the ROK known for its skeptical views on governmental policy towards North Korea. According to a poll of reporters at ROK media outlets, conducted by the Journalists Association of Korea to find out what source they respected and trusted the most, The Chosun Ilbo ranked first in both influence and reliability.
From the author’s point of view, the newspaper is indeed a good source of information when it comes to the situation in the ROK. However, whenever it publishes something about the DPRK, readers have to watch out for red herrings. This media outlet is not necessarily known for its high quality reports but instead their sheer number. After all, most emotionally charged articles (as the one about pet dogs) target an audience who already view the DPRK as a communist hell on Earth and are unlikely to question the information in them.
In fact, The Chosun Ilbo was responsible for publishing articles claiming that Hyon Song-wol and a number of other North Korean officials had been executed. However, later on, all of these individuals seemingly came back from the dead. It also reported about the supposed reprisals against DPRK diplomats by the North Korean leadership. Its latest sensational news item focused on the fact that sexual intercourse with an adolescent of 15 years or younger was as gravely punished as treason in the DPRK.
In many of the aforementioned articles, reporters cited unnamed sources.
Every time a story claiming that, for instance, the North Korean leader has yet again ordered the extermination of all cats in the DPRK, is published, it is quite easy to verify whether such information is true or not. After all, any widely disseminated news item leaves a trail of information. In fact, actions taken by the top DPRK leadership is extensively covered by the press, and most public speeches made by Kim Jong-un can be found on the website of North Korean government’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) or via other sources. A search of DPRK media outlets revealed that there have been no reports on the culling of dogs. In fact, recent news items have focused on Pungsan dogs (DPRK’s national breed) and their virtues. In 2018, Kim Jong-un gave President of South Korea Moon Jae-in two Pungsan puppies as a gift.
The problem is that “behaviors or speeches in favor of the North Korean regime or communism can be punished” by ROK’s National Security Law. Hence, The Chosun Ilbo can easily misinform its target audience about Kim Jong-un’s actions, as its readers are unlikely to visit websites of DPRK’s state news agencies. An additional issue any expert would find worrisome about the gory news item in question is that it was not picked up by any other South Korean media outlet, including the Yonhap News Agency (a government-funded company). This is usually yet another telltale sign indicating fake news.
Soon after the aforementioned article was published by The Chosun Ilbo, the Embassy of Russia to the DPRK in Pyongyang posted a message stating that in recent years, the number of lapdogs walking with their owners in the streets of the capital and other towns and cities had risen because it had become increasingly fashionable to own such animals after the North Korean leader had said once that the presence of pets was a norm for modern societies. It is also true that there are fewer lapdogs in the streets of the DPRK nowadays, but this has happened due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. After all, it is advisable not to walk with one’s pet(s) outside as an animal could eat something, become infected and then spread the illness within a household. The post by the Russian diplomatic mission also said that the rumors about pet confiscation had no bearing on the truth.
Finally, the author would like to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on the issue. According to the aforementioned Daily Mail article, “dog meat had long been considered a delicacy on the Korean Peninsula, although the tradition of eating dogs was gradually fading out in South Korea”. But still, “an estimated 1 million dogs were reared on farms to be consumed every year” in South Korea. The report also said that dog meat was “most popular in the hot and humid summer months”, as it was “believed to provide energy and stamina” and was “also known for raising the body temperature in the cold winter months”.
And although the custom of eating dog meat is now a declining practice in South Korea, the Daily Mail article stated that man’s best friend was “still a staple on the menu in the North”, “with a number of dedicated dog restaurants in Pyongyang”. Still, none of this means that consumption of lapdogs in the DPRK would help resolve the food shortage in the nation. After all, there are too few such pets to ensure a stable meat supply. And dogs reared on special farms are usually far bigger in size than lapdogs and are fed a special diet.
An individual critical of North Korea could say in defense of The Chosun Ilbo that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Hence, at times, the newspaper must print accurate reports. And the author would like to point out yet again that such news items get published because many people, including those making decisions, are, in fact, often misinformed. And even if such stories are proven to be untrue, only a few people learn of such updates as they are interested in North Korea and do not view it as the “axis of evil”. Others will continue to lament over the situation in the DPRK and wonder when North Koreans will finally lose their patience and topple the hateful regime. In fact, they believe that any measures taken against a dictator who orders the culling of pets are justified.
And The Chosun Ilbo continues to rely on such a target audience.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.