Don’t Believe Everything You Hear Reported About North Korea

SUSA-KoreanKim 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?

No.

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.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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9 Responses to Don’t Believe Everything You Hear Reported About North Korea

  1. Val W. Finnell, MD, MPH says:

    Excellent post. And the true test of spiritual progress for Christians is love, especially love of one’s enemies. In the Orthodox Church, we pray not only for the persecuted but for those who persecute them. In this case, the goal is conversion of one’s enemies…to make the persecutor your neighbor and love him. Very easy to say, but very hard to do.

  2. gordon elliott says:

    Eric, very true. It concerns me that often we as Christians (myself included) very gullible which then often brings bad attention to Christians, their Lord and true cases of great suffering and need. Thanks for writing a very insightful piece.

    • EFoley says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, Gordon. I am concerned that the situation appears to be worsening–news media publishing ever more spurious reports and Christians believing them uncritically. Let’s pray Matthew 10:16 for us all!

      • vfinnell says:

        Sensationalism sells more newspapers and gets more viewers. Truth is usually the casualty in the media game.

  3. ted rohe says:

    Very well written and strongly agree for the most part. Sometime ago when I was researching North Korea a lot of the famine stories were being dismissed because it seemed to far fetched to be true. However, those stories became so common and too voluminous to dismiss anymore. So while I agree we should check sources, not every sensational story is true, and there are those who do fudge actual stories, I also wouldn’t dismiss every story just because you can’t corroborate it or it doesn’t sound like the usual NK incident. Not every incident can be confirmed by another party, especially in NK. While NK does have a lot of systems and patterns, that doesn’t mean NK or those in authority won’t do something outside the usual. Nevertheless, the source is important. Thus, I wouldn’t run or believe every story wholeheartedly, but I also wouldn’t fully dismiss every story that can’t be fully confirmed or runs contrary to the norm of NK. The very fact of Jang Song-Taek process of being executed runs against the way Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung would have done it, but it’s clearly the way it was done, very public, on TV, and confirmed directly by the Supreme Leader himself after the fact. Truth is important, being reasonably critical is important, but with NK you have to work with this system of outright deception and fake realism to decipher what may be true in NK and to shine the light of truth in NK. I’m not advocating changing a story to get more coverage or using the tactics of NK, but I am saying many half truths come out of NK. Thus, dismissing the whole when half of it may be false may not always be the wisest option.

    • EFoley says:

      Good thoughts, Ted. It’s definitely important not to dismiss unusual or rare reports. I do think the preferable option is neither to dismiss nor publish reports on one source but rather to verify and seek additional confirmation. Further, the past reliability of the source itself is important. The number of one-source stories about NK from questionable sources that are hitting the front page these days is a real cause for concern.

      Good to hear from you–do stay in touch.

  4. Pingback: Seoul USA CEO: Don’t believe everything you hear about North Korea | The Underground

  5. Joe Sanders says:

    Amen, I remember the story of the steamrollered Christians and at that time believed it. The rule of 3 – as in 3 verification’s on a story is really good wisdom – I wish all Christian news or para church ministries dealing with persecution practiced that. I am sure some do thankfully besides SeoulUSA. I totally agree with being truthful. I saw today an interview between Fox news’ ‘Spirited Away’ host and David curry of Open Doors talking about the new list of their World Watch and she (Lauren) had a hard understanding his explanation of the complexity of NK politics, persecution of Christians, etc. I think because as he pointed out NK is different than the other regimes or countries – he referenced their ‘total control’.

  6. Pingback: Please Pray For The 33 Detainees Awaiting Execution In North Korea. But Please Don’t Call Them Underground Christians | Do the Word

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