Kim Jong Un’s former mentor Jang Song-Taek torn apart by 120 hungry hounds! 80 North Koreans executed for possessing Bibles! 20,000 North Korean concentration camp prisoners slaughtered without a trace!
All the above headlines have two things in common:
First, they were run on the largest news networks in the world.
Second, each story was based on a single, unconfirmed source which, in each case, has been unable to be confirmed long after the original story aired.
In the case of the most recent sensational North Korea story–the purported death by hounds of Jang Song-Taek–the single “source” on which all the major networks based their stories was, of all things, a satirical tweet from a Chinese newspaper of very questionable reliability.
In the case of each of the North Korea “news reports” noted above, the most respected and reliable North Korea analysts either ignored the report, refuted it, or simply stayed quiet.
Why? Isn’t it possible that these things could have happened? After all, is there any awful thing North Korea wouldn’t do? Why require multiple sources before you blow the whistle?
Let me answer such questions with an anecdote from a few years back.
Mrs. Foley and I were in Korea, talking to a man doing North Korea human rights work who shared with us the report of a tragic execution in North Korea. A North Korean woman had been assisting a health care project of an international NGO inside North Korea. She was accused of being a spy and, after a rather summary investigation, executed.
But here was the tragedy that compounded that tragedy:
The man said to us, “Americans want to hear stories about Bibles and people being killed for having Bibles. I’m going to tell the American media that she was killed for distributing Bibles.”
And so he did.
And so that’s what the American media reported. The story was everywhere.
It was completely untrue–a total fabrication. The man who spoke to us wasn’t even a Christian. But in his mind, he had accomplished his purpose: Punish North Korea with bad press, even if the press was inaccurate. His logic was this: If there was no Bible, there would have been no news interest; if there had been no news interest, then North Korea would have gotten away with killing another innocent citizen without any recrimination at all. As it was, the outcry likely led to an outpouring of donations to Christian NGOs doing North Korea work.
So doesn’t the means justify the end?
Set aside for a moment the obvious sin of lying (though the degree to which stretching the truth for fundraising purposes is a major, major problem with Christian NGOs never ceases to amaze–and grieve–me). Here’s the other problem that results from running major stories about North Korea based on a single source:
It throws the public off the trail of the real, deep, serious, systemic problems with North Korea.
If you believe, for example, that North Korea publicly executes people for possessing Bibles, then you will fail to understand how North Korea really does deal with Christians. North Korea would consider it absolutely crazy to make Christians into popular, sympathetic martyrs by executing them publicly. Instead, they throw them into concentration camps and make them die slowly and quietly while still getting about 18 months of work out of them for the state along the way. No public martyrs, no international sympathy. It’s North Korea’s usual way of dealing with the “Christian problem.”
Contrast this with the apocryphal story that has continued to make the rounds for decades, about a group of North Korean Christians lined up end to end while a state-run steamroller prepares to grind them into oblivion unless they renounce their faith in God. In the story, the North Korean Christians sing “Nearer My God to Thee” while they are run over one by one.
It’s a tremendously moving story. There’s just one problem:
It comes from a single source and it goes against everything we know about how North Korea deals with confirmed Christians.
North Korea doesn’t permit Christians last words at public executions. In North Korean public executions, those marked for death have rocks stuffed in their mouths so that they cannot make a sound. They are not charged for being Christian. They are charged with other crimes, typically sedition, spying, crimes against the state–anything that will not rouse the sympathy or particular interest of anyone beyond those being executed or those being forced to witness the execution.
It’s always important to tell the truth simply for the sake of telling the truth. Even when it comes to dealing with evil empires and demonic dictators, we tell the truth because of what the Apostle John reminds us in 1 John 1:6-7:
If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.
As a person who has devoted his life to North Korea ministry, I can tell you it is very tempting to do unto North Korea what North Korea does unto us: Misinformation. Lies. Slander. Partial truths. But as a minister of the Gospel, I must always remember that I am called to disciple the nation of North Korea, not to demonize it. Kim Jong Un is not my enemy. As the Apostle Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6:12:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
So don’t believe everything you hear reported about North Korea. Even if you see it reported on Fox News and in the Huffington Post and on Yahoo and by five of your friends on Facebook. Check the sources. Make sure there’s more than one. At Seoul USA, we require three sources before we publish or certify a report as accurate.
If a news report about North Korea is sensational, it’s probably just that: Sensational. North Korea is not a comic book villain. They haven’t lasted this long because they are careless.
Truth be told, the kind of evil that is witnessed daily in North Korea is rarely sensational. It’s most frequently dull, unrelenting, and purposeful.
The true stories of martyrdom almost never make the news. The enemy works to make sure of it.
That’s why telling the true stories well–well researched, well documented, well told–is a sacred responsibility, not a news grab.