While in Orange County, Calif., last week, I had a chance to read the following story about North Korea and religious persecution in an actual dead-tree-pulp edition of the Los Angeles Times. I thought that reporter Barbara Demick did a good job of handling the brutal details without letting things get out of control. I did, however, wonder if the basic "rice evangelism" anecdote was the most powerful lead for this story.
SEOUL -- A few years ago, an astonishing rumor spread among the teenagers of Musan, a sad, hungry mining town hugging the North Korean side of the border with China. If you slipped over and looked for a house with a cross, the people inside would give you a lecture on Christianity and a bowl of rice.
Choi Hwa knew this was dangerous stuff. Back when she was an impressionable 12-year-old, she and her classmates had been called out to watch the execution of a young woman and her father who were caught with a Bible. But Choi knew as well that the pangs in her stomach meant she might soon succumb to the starvation that had killed dozens of neighbors. The girl followed her stomach. Through it, she found her way to faith.
After all, this story also included some hellish accounts of persecution and martyrdom, as believers struggled to express their faith while living in the shadows of the allegedly divine Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il. I especially liked the detail from Demick that the North Korean PR writers have a special distaste for Christian faith because they have plagiarized certain sacred details to flesh out their own stories. For example, "doctrine has it that Kim Jong Il's birth was heralded by a bright star in the sky."
I also flinched while reading this account about the deaths of five middle-aged men accused of running an underground church.
They were forced to lie on the ground and were crushed by a steamroller, said a 30-year-old North Korean defector, who added that he witnessed the incident while he was in the army. "At the time, I thought they got what they deserved," said the defector, who related his story to The Times. Now a theology student in South Korea, he asked to be identified only by his English first name, Stephen.
Days later, a friend (hat tip to Rod Dreher) sent me a slightly different account of the same event. This is the rare case in which the writing in a bookish journal of theology and culture -- the weblog of First Things, actually -- is more gripping than the reporting in a world-class newspaper. This account is taken directly from the printed reports of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, based on eyewitness accounts.
You be the judge. Which is the more memorable? Does the First Things version go too far?
... (In) the building of a highway near Pyongyang, a house was demolished and a Bible was discovered hidden between bricks. Along with it was a list identifying a Christian pastor, two assistant pastors, two elders, and 20 members of the congregation. All were rounded up and the five Christian leaders were told they could avoid death if they denied their faith and swore to serve only Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung. ...
Refusing to do so, they were forced to lie down and a steamroller used in the highway construction was driven over them. The report continues, "Fellow parishioners who had been assembled to watch the execution cried, screamed out, or fainted when the skulls made a popping sound as they were crushed beneath the steamroller."
I think I need to get a copy of that report. Ditto for other journalists who care about basic human rights.