When the satirical U.S. newspaper and website The Onion named North Korea's portly young leader this year's “Sexiest Man Alive,” a lot of readers online around the world had a good laugh. But in China and South Korea the satire appeared to be lost in translation and has been re-published as straight news - a story gleefully reported by international media outlets Wednesday.
The most prominent media organ to have not caught the joke was the online version of The People’s Daily, the official voice of China's Communist Party. It removed the article Wednesday that had the world laughing at it, instead of with it.
The newspaper had posted 55 photos of North Korea's leader to accompany an article noting how Kim Jong Un is “blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side.”
Accompanying the slides was language explaining that the Pyongyang-bred heartthrob “with his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm and his strong, sturdy frame” is every woman's dream come true.
But the People's Daily article failed to note that the source of the accolades, The Onion, is a satirical news source.
The article contained other clues this was all in jest, such as noting that the 2011 winner had been Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria.
China is North Korea's sole significant ally and most of the impoverished country's food and fuel is imported from the giant neighbor.
Kevin Sites, a journalist and associate professor at Hong Kong University, says teaching classes in Asia has made him aware his humor is not always understood by students who are not native English speakers. And, he notes The Onion's style of writing can sometimes fool casual readers, even in the United States.
“Their satire is so finely honed. It's very sharp. And, in fact, in some cases - maybe not in this one - it's nuanced and not everyone gets the joke around the world,” said Sites.
CNBC Asia’s Bernie Lo in Hong Kong and Cherry Kang in Seoul, in a live exchange about the story on the business news channel Wednesday, had the newscasters unable to maintain straight faces. The normally straitlaced Lo was seen removing his glasses to wipes tears from his eyes after he burst out laughing.
The New York Times, in its blog posting about the satire, helpfully explained that the online version of the People's Daily does not go through the same strict editing process as the print edition.
The Onion, in an update posted about its story, kept in character claiming the People's Daily as its proud Communist subsidiary and praised it for “exemplary reporting, comrades.”
The Korea Times, an English-language newspaper in Seoul, also published the satire online as a serious article. It ran it alongside the Korean version, issued by the semi-official Yonhap news agency. The Yonhap article quoted CNN as its source, noting The Onion, indeed, is a humor news outlet. But the English version did not.
An obviously displeased online staff member of The Korea Times acknowledged Wednesday to VOA News that the Yonhap article was “mistranslated” by the newspaper. However, not seeing any humor in the embarrassment, he declined to give insight into how the newspaper's staff had been duped.
Later Wednesday, the South Korean newspaper also pulled the posting but left readers’ comments intact some of which ridiculed it for not getting the joke.
This is not the first instance in which The Onion's articles have been mistaken for real news in different countries.
The Beijing Evening News, in 2002, reported an Onion story noting the U.S. Congress was threatening to relocate to the state of Tennessee unless Washington agreed to build a new Capitol building with better parking, more bathrooms and a retractable dome.
“I think Chinese news agencies will now be, hopefully, a bit more circumspect before they continue to use them as their news source,” said Sites, a former globetrotting journalist online for Yahoo! News.
Two Bangladeshi newspapers apologized in 2009 for reprinting a spoof from The Onion that the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, had admitted the U.S. lunar landings were a hoax.
And, two months ago, Iran's semi-official Fars news agency, excerpted an Onion story without attribution about rural white Americans preferring to vote for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over President Barack Obama.