If you run in certain Facebook circles, you’ve likely already read that North Korean leader Kim Jung-un has called for the execution of 33 North Korean Christians. According to the widely circulated reports, these 33 people were detained after it was discovered they had ties to Kim Jung-wook, a South Korean missionary whose arrest for religious activity last year has made international headlines.
The story of the impending executions has been shared thousands of times on social media, and in its wake, groups like Open Doors USA have encouraged Christians to hunker down for the spiritual battle for North Korea. “We need to bathe the country of North Korea in prayer,” said Open Doors USA president and CEO, David Curry, in a statement released March 10. “Usually when persecution increases in a country, the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ is spreading.”
But here’s the thing: No one can verify this call for executions actually took place.
That it could have taken place is certainly possible. Since 2001, the U.S. State Department has designated North Korea as a Country of Particular Concern because of its “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” including the arrest, torture and even execution of people of faith—and for 12 consecutive years, Open Doors USA has named North Korea the most dangerous country for Christians.
However, when it comes to the specific fate of these 33 specific albeit unnamed Christians, there’s only one human being on the planet claiming to have any first-hand knowledge—another unnamed person described simply as “a source” in The Chosun Ilbo, the South Korean newspaper that first reported the story.
It’s the closed-off nature of North Korea, the limited flow of information both in and out of the country, that Park said leads to a slipping of journalistic standards when some bit of information appears to have come out.From South Korea, the story made its way to the West via the British tabloid Daily Mail, which, citing only The Chosun Ilbo and its single, anonymous source, published the story on its website. It was then picked up by U.S. publications like the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and the D.C.-based newspaper The Washington Times, both of which—using only Daily Mail as a source—also posted the story to their websites.
There’s an old adage in journalism: If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. And while different publications have different fact-checking policies, taking the word of a single unnamed source with no identified credentials seems to be an objectively poor editorial decision—even more so when you consider that the only paper to have direct contact with this source—as Sokeel Park, the director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea, puts it—“has been known to be wrong with ‘inside information’” in the past.
Yet this story isn’t about a mother’s love or, to be perfectly honest, about anything that can in fact be verified. “North Korea is one of the most closed countries in the entire world,” said Jerry Dykstra, a spokesperson for Open Doors USA, which stands by the execution story. “It’s very difficult to get information out of there.”
Park agrees, though he is more skeptical of the execution story.
“I would say it’s the hardest country for a researcher or journalist to find information on—to find reliable and good quality information on,” he said. “I’m sure there are places like Eritrea and Turkmenistan that are difficult as well, but just the amount of control North Korea has over its borders, and the effectiveness of its internal security forces for rooting out spies or undercover journalists and that kind of stuff, I think would be the highest in the world.”
No one even knows how many Christians are in North Korea. In a 2002 report to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the North Korean government said there were slightly less than 13,000. Dykstra and Open Doors estimate there are between 200,000 and 350,000. Others put the number closer to 100,000.
It’s the closed-off nature of North Korea, the limited flow of information both in and out of the country, that Park said leads to a slipping of journalistic standards when some bit of information appears to have come out.
“There’s an issue with international media reporting on North Korea, because there’s an echo chamber,” he said. Often, Park said, a story first appears in a South Korean or Japanese newspaper and then gets picked up by a news outlet in Europe or the U.S. From there it’s disseminated without any further research or questioning, often because further research is impossible.
“That story then becomes a de facto truth because so many news outlets are reporting it, and it’s hard for journalists and editors to not run with it, because every body else is running with it,” he said.
Satellite images and smuggled Chinese cell phones have helped crack North Korea’s armor, but most of what the world knows today about North Korea comes from those who have crossed the Tumen River into China and escaped. These personal testimonies are imperfect: they can be impossible to prove, and they only represent one person’s experience in a specific region. Still, a representative from Crossing Borders, a nonprofit that helps North Korean refugees, said they are invaluable. (Because he works on the ground in China, he asked to remain anonymous.)
“We see a lot of common threads, and we don’t think this is an organized PR effort by a group of North Koreans,” he said. “When one person says they were tortured in North Korea, that’s one thing. But when tens of thousands of North Korean refugees say this is going on, I think at some point you have to consider it credible.”
While there have been false reports and even instances of defectors lying to gain publicity, the Crossing Borders representative said looking for consistency is key when discerning the truthfulness of information coming out of North Korea. “You really have to study it to see if it’s consistent with other reports. That’s the only real sniff test for me, as far as whether something is valid or not.”
He wasn’t sure if The Chosun Ilbo’s execution story was true but said it seemed consistent with how the North Korean government handles Christians. “They’re very afraid of Christianity,” he said. “There are no groups organizing against the government. They [the government] know the church is still alive in North Korea, and that if Christians wanted, through their network, they could organize something against the government.” Ultimately, he said, the North Korean leadership is afraid of losing power and then facing possible imprisonment or execution for its crimes.
For Jerry Dykstra, the lengths to which the North Korean government has gone in its attempt to avoid this fate can only be described as “horrendous.” The U.S. State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report cites defector testimony accusing the regime of arresting someone for praying, arresting a woman and torturing her to death for “religious activity and passing out Bibles,” and even publicly executing another woman simply for owning a bible.
“There’s almost no degree where they won’t go to eradicate Christianity from the regime,” Dykstra said.
That the North Korean government is violently opposed to religion is not up for debate, Sokeel Park said. “There’s a lot of strong evidence that there is religious persecution, including of Christians that has been happening for decades in North Korea.” Yet, he still cautions against blindly believing single stories of persecution.
Both he and the representative from Crossing Borders recommended Daily NK as a reliable source for information. Not only are defectors on staff, they said, but the staff is also regularly in contact with people inside North Korea by way of smuggled cell phones. Park also recommended journalists and media consumers follow three steps for discerning the truth in a report about North Korea: go back to the original source, consider that source’s reputation and then consider how well the story fits into what we know about North Korea.
“North Korea is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity today,” he said. “Obviously, to deal with this, we need to have an understanding of North Korea that is grounded in reality…rather than in sensationalist journalism. That’s not to say horrific things don’t happen in North Korea, because a lot of horrific things do happen in North Korea and are happening every day—but it’s just important that that stuff is reported on in a reliable and credible way rather than in a way that doesn’t fit international journalistic standards.”