Not known for its sense of humour, the Chinese Communist Party's official mouthpiece apparently fell for a parody by The Onion, the satirical newspaper and website, when it reported Tuesday in some online editions of People's Daily that Kim Jong Un, the young, chubby North Korean ruler, had been named the "Sexiest Man Alive for 2012."
Or did it?
The brief article, accompanied by a 55-photograph slide show, quoted from The Onion as evidence: "With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman's dream come true. Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper's editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle and, of course, that famous smile."
The slide show revealed Kim in a variety of poses, like sitting atop a galloping white horse and greeting throngs of beaming North Korean soldiers.
The headline and slide show became a sensation on the Internet, and people wondered whether People's Daily had been duped by The Onion article, which appeared Nov. 14.
John Delury, a scholar of Chinese and Korean history at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, said, "If it's sincere, then it says something about the gullibility of a certain People's Daily editor."
There were signs that someone at People's Daily might have created the slide show with a subversive wink. The same day, the English-language edition of People's Daily Online ran a 15-photograph slide show under the headline "'Sex Tape' Official at Work."
The tongue-in-cheek slide show referred to an official in Chongqing, Lei Zhengfu, who was humiliated last week when someone leaked a video online of Lei having sex with an 18-year-old mistress in 2007.
The People's Daily slide show showed Lei doing his job as an official. Another slide show this month showed women at the 18th Party Congress under the headline "Beautiful Scenery."
The original Onion article, a parody of People magazine's annual "Sexiest Man Alive" feature, listed previous winners as Bashar Assad, Bernard L. Madoff and Ted Kaczynski.
Will Tracy, its author, said in a telephone interview that he believed People's Daily and The Korea Times, which also picked up the story, did not realize the original was intended as a prank. He said he had thought the list of previous winners, filled with "renowned maniacs," was enough of a red flag.
Tracy added that The Onion had issued a formal statement.
"We are pleased that one of our many fine Communist subsidiaries, the People's Daily in China, has received accolades for its coverage of our Sexiest Man Alive announcement," the statement said. "The People's Daily has served as one of The Onion's Far East bureaus for quite some time, and I believe their reportage as of late has been uncommonly fine, as well as politically astute."
People's Daily could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.
The online version of People's Daily does not go through the same rigorous editing process as the print edition.
In 2002, Beijing Evening News ran an Onion article that said the U.S. Congress was considering leaving Washington to look for a new capitol building. In September, the Fars News Agency of Iran, which is semi-official, published an Onion article that said a Gallup poll had found that more rural, white Americans would vote for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran than President Barack Obama.
When Tracy was asked Tuesday whether he had any concerns that the misinterpretation of these articles could provoke international incidents, he said, "The Onion fully intends to provoke international incidents."
(Christine Haughney contributed reporting from New York)