My sincere thanks and professional appreciation go out to Radio Free Asia’s Joon-ho Kim, Hyosun Kim. and Rachel Vandenbrink for what in my view is perhaps the only credible story among the large media outlets regarding the dozens of people now being held in North Korea in connection with South Korean missionary Kim Jung Wook’s ill-conceived effort to travel to Pyongyang using false papers, allegedly in the hope of planting 500 underground churches.
You may recall my post a few weeks back in which I cautioned you not to believe everything you read in the media about North Korea, especially when it comes to stories about underground Christians. This past weekend proved a textbook example. One media outlet in Korea ran a single-source story (i.e., one without confirmation from other sources) that, as it was picked up by other media outlets (including the Washington Times and Fox news) and retweeted and re-posted on Facebook, became a wrenching story of how 39 underground Christians who had been partnering with Kim Jung Wook were now awaiting weekend execution in North Korea. I received emails from friends of our ministry letting me know that they were holding all-night prayer vigils and gathering signatures in support of our dear underground brothers and sisters. A dear sister in the US even wrote a poem in their honor.
Problem is, once again the media identified the wrong tragedy.
Fortunately, Kim’s Radio Free Asia article has it precisely correct, in my opinion, and done with the highest standard of journalistic integrity which is grievously lacking in the other reports on this matter. Please–by all means–read, repost, and retweet the RFA article, not the other ones! (And bookmark RFA’s English language NK news feed so you can check back in the future next time you hear a story like this!) Let me quote from it and make what I believe to be some important observations:
North Korean authorities have detained dozens of people accused of helping a South Korean missionary smuggle himself into the country, a local source said, as a report suggested that some of them face execution on charges of conspiring with him to set up underground churches.
Yes! Exactly! This is the way you report a single source story–especially one as tragic as this. The key point that is attested by multiple sources, as Kim establishes in the opening sentence, is that the people who are detained are being detained because they are accused of helping Missionary Kim enter the country. Then the RFA report notes that “a report suggested that some of them face execution on charges of conspiring with him to set up underground churches.” This is excellent journalism–to note that this is a single source that is suggesting this.
So are these detainees seasoned underground North Korean Christians who were delighted by the arrival of a South Korean missionary and immediately set to work with appreciation for his plan to plant 500 underground churches in North Korea?
Back to the RFA report:
Those facing punishment include guards who allegedly allowed Kim Jung-wook, a Baptist evangelist held by North Korean authorities since last October, to pass through security checkpoints on his way from China to Pyongyang, according to a source in Sinuiju, a North Korean town bordering China….
Since the press conference, people accused of helping him have been banished to prison camps, and authorities have arrested security guards in charge of the checkpoints Kim allegedly passed through, the source in Sinuiju said.
“After the press conference, dozens of people vanished into thin air,” the source in Sinuiju told RFA’s Korean Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The missing people are presumed to be people connected to Kim Jong-wook or family members of those connected to him, and may be sent to remote areas or to prison camps.”
Note what RFA did. They sought confirmation of the story by checking with sources on the ground. It would not be hard for the Washington Times or Fox News to have found such a source, since this has been buzzing in the relevant circles all over Sinuiju and the surrounding area for several months.
In my opinion, the tragedy for which we should have been holding (and still should be holding) all-night prayer vigils and writing poetry is one that is all too common in this line of ministry work:
Many innocent people may lose their lives because they were drawn into a poorly conceived plan.
There are not 33 underground Christians awaiting execution in North Korea. But there are dozens of people (that’s probably a conservative number) being interrogated, beaten, and disappearing into thin air because they had contact with a man who had a plan that the rest of us in this line of work (at least I hope so) either said or would have said if asked, “Please don’t do that. It won’t work. If you do that, many innocent people will die. And you know that the underground Christians don’t work like that.”
Now you may fairly ask, “Yes, but how do you know that all 33 of these were not underground Christians? Or perhaps they became Christians after their contact with Missionary Kim?”
Regrettably, there are things in this matter that must be left unsaid. But referring back to the general principles I shared in my earlier post about being wise as serpents when it comes to sorting through North Korea news (especially North Korean underground Christian news),
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.
Remember (and be sure to verify this through your own research! Be a good reporter like Joon-ho Kim!):
- The North Korean government does not have a history of arresting people or executing them on charges of Christian activity. That would draw too much attention from the rest of the world. So when they arrest people for such activity, they call it treason, or sedition, or espionage, because they view Christian activity as just that: A crime against the Kim family.
- North Korean underground Christians do not plant churches in groups of 500. For more than 60 years they have continued to advance the gospel faithfully, but not like comic book characters. The best, most active, most on-fire-for-the-Lord North Korean underground Christian evangelists might share the gospel with a dozen people outside of their family in their lifetime (before, of course, their life is cut short because they are sent to a concentration camp for such flagrant sedition/treason/espionage).
The problem with spreading the idea that North Korean underground Christians would readily collaborate with a South Korean missionary to plant 500 underground churches in one fell swoop is analogous to the problem with a guy watching pornography: When his wedding night comes, no matter how beautiful his new bride really is, she can never match what he ogled online over and over again. In the same way, if we find ourselves taken in by these kind of stories, then the truly beautiful, gut-wrenching, wise, strategic, and, yes, small, efforts of North Korean underground Christians won’t even register on our radar screen. And we will forget to hold all-night prayer vigils for them.
Please pray for Missionary Kim. May his best missionary efforts be today and henceforth.
And please pray for those whom he met, those whom he managed to evade, those to whom he spoke, and those to whom he speaks now.
But please don’t call them underground Christians.