Here’s the must-read story of a previously unknown NK martyr…which we discovered in an NK govt anti-religion training video

Voice of the Martyrs Korea has learned the story of a previously unknown North Korean Christian martyr from a North Korean government video used to train state security agents how to identify and silence proponents of religion inside North Korea.

The purpose of the North Korean government video is to discredit practitioners of religion. But by deciphering the story told in the video we learn for the first time about a bold and courageous North Korean evangelist who received Christ in China and returned to North Korea instead of escaping to the South.

Cha Doeksun NK martyr

Cha Deoksun, previously unknown NK martyr

According to the propaganda film, Cha Deoksun had been a strong revolutionary whose faith in the government wavered during the Great Famine. During this time, Cha Deoksun heard that she could get help if she visited a woman in the northwest. This woman told her, “There is a way that you can live even if you have committed a capital offense.”

After visiting this women, Cha Deoksun illegally crossed the border between China and North Korea in search of an uncle that lived in China.  Instead of finding her uncle, who had died before she arrived, Cha Deoksun found Seotap Church and was deeply moved by the gospel message. According to the propaganda video, she became a fanatical believer who was inspired to return to North Korea and form an underground network of believers inside of North Korea.

Seotap Church

Seotap Church in China

When she first returned to North Korea, however, Cha Deoksun turned herself in to the authorities. According to the video, the authorities were lenient and released her. Instead of praising the government, however, Cha Deoksun praised the Lord.

Due to her poverty, Cha Deoksun was given permission by the government to travel between towns in North Korea to provide for herself. During her travels, Cha Deoksun went out of her way to evangelize others. According to the video, she gave money to people who were poor, lower class, or suffering. She also found the descendants of several prominent Korean Christians and worshipped together with them. The video claims that these groups of underground Christians gathered every Sunday to worship, pray, sing hymns, and study the scripture—even during the busiest farming season.

The household where Cha Deoksun worshiped

The North Korea home where Cha Deoksun and other underground believers worshiped every week

Cha Deoksun and others worshiping in the woods

Cha Deoksun and other underground believers worshiping in an NK forest

Of course, this isn’t the way the propaganda describes Cha Deoksun. The video describes her as a spy seeking to recruit other spies. This is the typical definition of evangelism used in NK propaganda.

Eventually, Cha Deoksun was reported by “a good and awakened North Korean citizen.”

The inclusion of Cha Deoksun in the government training video is a reminder of the truth of Romans 8:28—that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose.

The goal of Voice of the Martyrs Korea is to keep the voices of the martyrs from falling silent. The story of Cha Deoksun shows that God uses even anti-religion training videos to ensure that the stories, memories, and words of the Lord’s beloved martyrs are not lost but are instead preserved and spread through the very state that intended to destroy them.

NK govt anti religion training video shows Christian materials

Christian materials shown in an NK government anti-religion training video

You can also learn more about the North Korean underground church by reading the book, These Are the Generations, which I was privileged to write with third generation underground North Korean Christians.


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While the nations rage, Christians’ prayer priority remains unchanged

Uncertainty regarding the status of negotiations between North Korea, the United States, and South Korea has fixed many Christians’ eyes to the headlines daily to know how to pray. But the most important prayer that Christians can pray related to North Korea is one that can only be found in the Bible.

We may be citizens of the US, South Korea, or another country, but the Bible says we are one body with believers around the world—including North Korean Christians. Galatians 6:10 says we must prioritize care for other members of Christ’s body above everything else, even national security. And in Matthew 25, Jesus reminds us that he identifies fully with Christian brothers and sisters in prison: When we neglect them, we neglect him—and he will remember it on the last day.

More than 30,000 Christians are imprisoned in North Korea. This figure is well-attested by even secular groups like Amnesty International and government agencies like the US State Department. Because of this, every day our first prayers for the peace process should always be for those 30,000 Christians—that the Lord would bring them comfort and immediate relief.

It is not necessary for us to try to imagine the conditions faced by North Korean Christians in prison because former Christian prisoners have left a detailed account. Mr. Bae, who now lives in South Korea, was a North Korean underground believer imprisoned for his faith. He shared an account of his time in prison with me in the book These are the Generations. Mr. Bae recalls:

I was treated like an insect in prison. Every day of those thirteen months was the same. Up at 5:00 a.m. Mop the floor. Clean up. Go to the restroom. Throw out the contents of the bucket. Then I had to sit cross-legged with my hands on my knees in the same position for the next seventeen hours. I was not permitted to turn my neck or slouch with my back. Every two hours, we were allowed to urinate. The only other time we were allowed to move was during meals, which were exactly one minute long. At 10:00 p.m., we were allowed to go to bed, but our heads had to be turned away from the prison bars. “Bed” meant laying down on the wooden floor.

When you’re sitting, you cannot move, even if you get bit by a mosquito. If you even flinch, you receive punishment—torturous humiliations dreamed up by the guards. In one punishment, you’d have to stand with your knees bent, holding a full bowl of water over your head for thirty minutes. If you spilled even a drop, you’d be beaten senseless with a rod. For another punishment, you had to extend your hands through the prison bars so the guard on the other side could mash your palms into bloody ribbons of flesh with a sharp iron spike. You might be ordered to hang from a bar for half an hour or crawl like an insect across the wooden floor.

Mostly, though, I just sat, unmoving, for seventeen hours a day, for more than a year of my life. (These Are the Generations, 54)

Scripture does tell us to pray for the authorities (1 Timothy 2:2), for wisdom for Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In. But our prayers should neither start or end there. Our first prayers should be for the household of faith (Galatians 6:10), particularly our brothers and sisters in prison in North Korea. As we pray for political negotiations between the US, North Korea, and South Korea, we should not neglect prayers and care for the North Korean Christians with whom we are one body.



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“Can’t you just wait?” Why the Peace of Korea can—and must—be entrusted to balloon launchers, among others

Launching balloons into North Korea is never boring work, but these are especially interesting times to be a launcher. “Why can’t you just wait to launch?” is the question one hears repeatedly, often urgently and in frustration, asked by government officials, police, media, Facebook commenters, and even friends. Are you bigger than the peace process? Are you blind to the risk to which you are subjecting all of us? Are your partisan goals more important than everyone’s peace? The Ministry of Unification is allegedly even offering support to at least some launchers to switch to other human rights activities, ones that the MOU judges don’t violate the spirit of the recent peace summit so egregiously. Everyone seems moved by the spirit of healthy compromise and mutual respect these days—everyone, that is, except for balloon launchers.

I certainly can’t speak for all balloon launchers. My organization, Voice of the Martyrs Korea, is indeed one of the “big three” launchers by volume of materials launched, but we have little in common with other organizations which launch balloons. We launch only Bible portions, not human rights flyers. We use the version of the Bible published by the North Korean government, which the North Korean government insists can be read legally by all North Koreans, as according to the North Korean constitution. We always announce our launches to the police but never to the media. We launch only at night and in remote, unpopulated areas. We use expensive cutting-edge technology to make sure our balloons and Bibles make it safely and unobtrusively into North Korea—everything from advanced computer modeling to GPS tracking to tiny weather balloons that are too small for radar and that pop without a trace rather than landing; and, beginning this year, helium gas only, not the more controversial (though far less expensive) hydrogen.

And clearly the balloons are having an impact. North Korea Human Rights Records Preservation House’s “2015 White Paper on Religious Freedom in North Korea” reports that the number of North Koreans who saw a Bible while in North Korea increased from near 0% in the year 2000 to 7.6% by 2014. That’s certainly not only due to our balloon Bibles; after all, Voice of the Martyrs Korea and other organizations get Bibles into North Korea through a host of other channels. But all those other channels combined don’t add up to anywhere near the impact of the 40,000 Bibles we’ve launched annually for more than a decade.

Still, it’s more than understandable to ask: Should a peace process be risked just so Christians can proselytize and North Korean defectors can protest? Freedom of expression and freedom of religion are important values, but are they so absolute that they can trump (no pun intended) compelling national interests?

This is the way the debate is typically framed, and thus it is no wonder so few would side with the balloon launchers. Yet, is it possible that the real problem is with the framing of the debate itself?

To ask, “Can’t you just wait to launch?” is in essence to ask, “Why can’t you respect and trust the peace process?” But it is possible to sincerely respect a peace process between governments and behave honorably towards it, without having our own understanding and practices of peace limited by it.

Put differently, peace is too important and too big to be arrogated solely to governments. There is a kind of peace that can be manufactured when those south of the DMZ line up behind President Moon and those north of the DMZ line up behind Kim Jong Un and no one jumps the queue. But it is a pre-processed, institutionalized peace, with government-supplied flags, photos suitable for social media, and sporting and cultural exchanges to build the kinds of relationships with which governments are comfortable, at the pace with which they are comfortable. It is peace via four-point declaration. Historically, peace by declaration is frail, anemic, and contrived, usually found on life support, and always needing force to protect and preserve it.

By contrast, we need only recall the images of people climbing over the Berlin Wall to remind ourselves that true peace among a divided people typically breaks out in a human flood, not a declaration, and government’s role in the process is not to originate, achieve, define, schedule, and orchestrate it but rather to simply stop holding it back. It is not a shared love of sport and culture that draws the two Koreas together at the deepest level, nor is it the allure of a trans-Asian railroad, nor even a joint aversion to war. It is, quite simply, Koreanness. The peoples of these countries do not need to be chaperoned in their interactions, or even re-introduced. Despite the estrangement of the young, enough natural ties still remain such that were the governments involved simply to pledge not to blow anybody up, ordinary Korean people would instinctively know a surprising amount about how to initiate the core processes required to power the lengthy, difficult, and expensive work that lay ahead. It’s one of the benefits of a Confucian culture, and one of the generally true things about human beings once artificial (i.e., government erected and maintained) barriers are removed.

This is not a naïve proposal to achieve peace by “tearing down that wall” (though, interestingly, there may be more historical precedent for that than for the kind of peace process envisioned by the Panmunjom Declaration). Instead, it is an observation that one can sincerely respect governments’ roles in peacemaking by doing something more and other than standing down and deferring to governmental efforts. In fact, one shows respect by doing one’s one part for peace, making one’s unique contribution—whether governments like it, understand it, or can fit it into their own process. Authentic peace is not a spectator sport, not a one-track effort, not an orderly three-act play. It is not so much negotiated by governments as it is recognized by them; that is, peace breaks out, not altogether differently than how war does. As war represents the simultaneous parallel failure of many societal organs, peace represents their simultaneous parallel renewal beyond any of one of their singular control or orchestration. Each organ has a distinct and concurrent role to play in peacemaking, and part of any peace process is being cognizant of the inability of any one organ to make it happen or even to lead it, humble enough to accept that, and wise enough to make sufficient space for it. Christians would say peace comes in God’s time, and rarely through official channels. But regardless of one’s faith background, history reveals that peace somehow happens across a society, not from the top down; no one gets to run the thing, not even the presidents.

In the case of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, we launch Bibles not in an effort to proselytize for Christian converts but rather as our contribution to the peace process: We support North Korean underground Christians’ efforts to foster a different calculus for the valuing of individual human life in North Korea. According to the BIble, one is human (and deserves humane treatment) not because one is loyal and useful to the government but simply because one is created in the image of God—an inalienable state which can’t be granted by governments nor withheld by them. We have carefully launched this message (a North Korean message, translated by the North Korean government and protected by the North Korean government) into North Korea for more than a decade. With full submission to the laws (and punishments) of South Korea we have launched this message even through the death of Kim Jong Il, the sinking of the Cheonan, and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong. These launches have yet to start a war or derail a single step towards peace. The Bibles reaching ordinary North Koreans, however, brought meaning, forgiveness, and, yes, peace to many hearts, as our diverse and far-flung network inside and around North Korea can readily attest.

Christians may have a different vision of peace than governments, but it would be passing strange for a governmental peace process to be strengthened and safeguarded by snuffing out parallel peaceful efforts—including, I might note on behalf of other launchers, peaceful protest, which has historically contributed at least as much to the restoration and maintenance of peace in civil societies as have sports and cultural exchanges and blueprints for intercontinental railroads. The content of the flyers of these other launchers may on occasion be bombastic or crude, but to describe the flyers as “anti-North Korean”, as many purportedly neutral global news outlets regrettably are, is to make the egregious error of identifying all North Koreans as one with their leader, thus politicizing them. This politicization of inter-Korean relationships is arguably the very thing that stands as the greatest impediment to peace (or, at least the overcoming of that politicization offers peace the greatest hope for success). Balloon launchers launch in order to overcome the barriers to direct communication between ordinary Koreans that continue to be maintained by the governments of both Koreas. Ordinary Koreans did not erect the DMZ. Governments did. The DMZ is not the product of ordinary Koreans mistrusting each other. It is the product of ordinary Koreans trusting governments too much, and entrusting them with too much; namely, the DMZ reflects the politicization of the relationships between ordinary Koreans. A peace process that retains that politicization, even in reconfigured form—i.e., with North Koreans and South Koreans interacting with each other as North Koreans and South Koreans through carefully controlled and choreographed events and exchanges—is, at worst, doomed to fail or, at best, certain to be overtaken at some point by Koreans insisting that peace means the unmediated ability to interact with each other simply as Koreans, human beings, and families. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/ That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,” wrote Robert Frost. The frozen ground swell of a human rights balloon flyer is sometimes not pretty, but it beats a wall—especially if the wall is keeping you away from those you love on the other side.

Governments have their part in making peace, but we must be careful not to permit them to monopolize our means of making peace and of interacting with each other—either before, during, or after their periodic peacemaking efforts. Governments have their part in making peace, but as cultural commentator Andy Crouch notes, “We no longer need to invest our political structures with hopes of eternal rescue from the abyss of chaos.” The North Korean government may not be launching balloons southward these days (the weather would not permit it this time of year anyway), but they continue to launch salvos against Japan and the United States without fear of derailing the peace process; those in the south should be similarly comfortable that we needn’t worry too much about north-bound flyers propelling us back to the brink of war. Instead, we should worry about something far more vexing: Is it possible that after 65 years, we still haven’t learned not to cede our peacemaking efforts and imaginations and even familial relationships to the governments that took them away from us in the first place?

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