A Brief History and 2020 Snapshot of the North Korean Underground Church

Each year, as we prepare our North Korea projects and budgets for the coming year, we write a brief history of North Korean Christianity and a snapshot of present conditions to include with our project proposals. Our present circumstances, in which we stand accused in our own country as criminals alongside our North Korean Christian brothers and sisters, gave us a new perspective from which to write. I encourage you to read and share this with your family, friends, and church as you remember us and your North Korean brothers and sisters in prayer. (I had the privilege and pleasure of co-authoring this with my son, Trevor.)


The history of Christianity in Korea cannot be separated from the history of the Bible in Korea. The original Korean Bible translation was quite unique in its creation and distribution. In the late 19th century, John Ross, a Scottish missionary stationed in Manchuria, was able to meet with some Koreans among the peoples there. The Koreans he met had been merchants of little repute from the northern part of Korea. Having lost their livelihood and become financially desperate, they agreed to help Ross translate the New Testament into Korean.

In the process of translating, these men became Christians. As missionaries to their own people, they ultimately participated in the smuggling of 15,000 portions of the New Testament into Korea prior to the arrival of the first Western Protestant missionaries in 1885. When those first missionaries, Henry Appenzeller and Horace Grant Underwood, arrived, it was those Korean Christians who had already believed in Jesus Christ through the reading of the Bible who came of their own accord to receive baptism from the Western missionaries. As a result of their special brand of faith, the Western missionaries nicknamed the Korean Christians “Bible Christians”.

Christianity in Korea has, from the very beginning, been “Bible Christianity.” This history continues today, holding true for present-day Christians in North Korea as well. Their Christian life is an encounter with Christ through the His word. These Christians have never experienced the other things that may seem essential to meeting Christ (church buildings, religious liberty, pastors, discipleship training). They experience Christ clothed only in His word.

As it was in the beginning of the history of Christianity in the region, North Koreans of little repute continue to be the linchpins of evangelism to the North. North Korean defectors are regarded by many in both North and South Korean as traitors. Yet, these defectors who have become Christians comprise a grassroots evangelism movement to their family and friends in North Korean and China, as well as to their North Korean defector neighbors and friends in the South.

Current Situation

North and South Korean governments continue to engage in diplomacy that regards NGOs like Voice of the Martyrs Korea (VOMK) as dangerous to national security. Thus, for the first time, VOMK and other NK-related NGOs are targets for attack from both Koreas. So far, two human rights organizations in South Korea run by North Korean defectors are in the process of losing their NGO status. Subsequently, in July 2020, it was announced that the South Korean Ministry of Unification would start reviewing government-registered NGOs in the North Korea human rights sector, the first review set to target 25 such groups.

At the beginning of July 2020, VOMK was investigated by the Seoul government and police in response to blanket accusations of financial and programmatic mismanagement made by a governor with regard to the four largest balloon launching organizations. The investigation could not find any reason to revoke our NGO status because we are meeting the agreements set forth in our NGO permit. Because we also subject ourselves to scrupulous receipting and annual independent audits, the investigation could find no reason to accuse us on account of financial misconduct. What is clear, however, is that the South Korean government does not intend to allow us or other NK-related NGOs to operate in the manner which we have in the past. The central premise of VOMK’s NK ministry is that we are a platform for North Koreans to disciple and evangelize other North Koreans in partnership with and at the direction of underground Christians. What concerns the SK government about this method is that Koreans in the North and the South are able to relate with one another without the mediation of the government.

Although the current issue of contention is balloon launching, the South Korean government Ministry of Unification had also approached us in May 2018, instructing us not only to cease launching balloons, but also to end our radio broadcasts and other non-governmentally mediated activities. They instead offered that we might be able to participate in future cultural exchanges, distributing Bibles to the North Koreans permitted to participate in such events jointly organized by both governments. The cessation of balloon launching, thus, is the tip of a much deeper iceberg related to the legitimacy of private, non-governmental ministry activities involving North Koreans.

These circumstances have had the benefit of allowing us to explain to the public, the South Korean government and, indirectly, the North Korean government, our heritage and history as a mission, as well as about what it means for us to be partners of North Korean underground Christians rather than missionaries. In some sense, we are being written into the same history that God has been writing since the introduction of the faith into the region, because we have been publicly associated with North Korean underground Christians. People understand this to be our identity and purpose.

We have hope for the future not because we are optimistic about current events and their trajectory. We have hope because hope is a discipline of acknowledging God and His character in every circumstance. We believe that God has looked upon us being faithful with a little, and now He is giving the grand opportunity to suffer with NK believers in the name of Christ.

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“Why can’t you just stop launching for a while?”: A word to Christians around the world about our situation in South Korea

“Why can’t you just stop launching for a while?”

This is the question we at Voice of the Martyrs Korea are always asked about our work of sending Bibles into North Korea by high-altitude helium balloons. It is work that began 18 years ago in response to a promise Dr. Foley and I made to underground North Korean Christians. It is work that has continued every night over the past 15 years when the weather has permitted us to successfully launch (typically 10-15 times each summer), as according to our computer modeling software and GPS tracking devices. It is work that has continued even during the moments of greatest conflict between north and south: when Kim Jong-Il died, when the Cheonan submarine was sunk, and when Yeonpyeong Island was shelled. By the grace of God, it is work that has enabled us to place more than 600,000 Bibles inside North Korea, raising the percentage of North Koreans who have seen the Bible with their own eyes from 0% when we started to nearly 8% today.

However, from the day we started, it has always been unpopular work.  

In 2018, people said to us, “Peace is upon us now. Why can’t you just stop launching for a while?”

Now in 2020, people say to us, “War is upon us now. Why can’t you just stop launching for a while?”

The answer is this:

As long as it is day, we Christians in South Korea must all do the works of the Lord Jesus who sent us. Night is coming, when no one can work. (John 9:4)

From now on, each day that passes, it will become more and more difficult for Christians in South Korean to partner with underground North Korean Christians. The goal of the enemy (and our enemy is not flesh and blood; Ephesians 6:12) is to cut off South Korean Christians from North Korean Christians, to make us believe we are two bodies, not one.

People think that it is the South Korean Christians who are supporting the underground North Korean Christians, but from the moment Christianity came to Korea, continuing on up through today, the North Korean underground Christians have been and still remain the foundation and the pillars of the whole Korean church, north and south. So when the enemy cuts off the South Korean church from the North Korean underground church, it is not the North Korean underground church that will struggle but the South Korean church.

The South Korean church is always in danger of trusting in its money and whatever freedom the government grants it. That is how it allowed itself to become separate from the North Korean underground church in the first place.

But the North Korean underground church has never had money or freedom. It has only ever had Christ. And it has always found that Christ is sufficient. Christ is and always has been the light of the North Korean underground church. That light has always shined from the North Korean underground church to the South Korean church.

God’s word for today for all of us Christians in South Korea is this:

“Then Jesus told them, ‘You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you.’” (John 12:35)

Warmly in Christ,
The Rev. Dr. Eric Foley
CEO,  Voice of the Martyrs Korea
July 5, 2020

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VOMK publishes full audit, NGO permit online ahead of police investigation into balloons

In advance of Tuesday’s (July 7) investigation by Seongbuk-gu police and the Seoul Division of Cultural Policy regarding its balloon launching activities, Voice of the Martyrs Korea has published its 14-page 2019 independent financial audit and its NGO permit online for public download at https://vomkorea.com/en/about/financial-accountability/.

Voice of the Martyrs Korea CEO Pastor Eric Foley says that the ministry has made the materials easily available in order to allow not only government investigators but also the general public around the world to evaluate the organization’s financial transparency and whether it has done anything in violation of its NGO permit. “Now anyone can see how much money we have in the bank, how much salary and rent we pay, and even how much we spend on office supplies,” says Pastor Foley. [Note for readers outside Korea: Our currency is the South Korean Won (KRW), so when you read our audit, please remember that the figures are reported in KRW, not USD or other currency.]

Foley notes that Voice of the Martyrs Korea has never received any support at any time from any government or government-funded agency. “We are 100% supported by donations from individuals and churches,” says Foley. He notes that he himself has never received a salary from the Korean NGO.

VOMK’s NGO permit, which it has also now posted on its website,  lists six purposes of operation, including the following: “Provide Bibles, broadcasting, electronic materials, and medical aid to areas where Christianity is restricted or Christians are persecuted by the government or despised by their neighbors, discipling them in martyrdom through Christian history and supporting them financially.”

Pastor Foley says that police have said they will investigate the organization to see if it has violated its NGO permit through its balloon activities. “From the beginning, from the moment we filed our NGO application, we have made clear that our most important purpose as an organization is to get Bibles into nations where Christianity is restricted, in partnership with the underground Christians in those nations,” says Pastor Foley.

Foley adds, “Since 2005, we have sent an average of 40,000 Bibles per year into North Korea, in printed and electronic forms, using balloons and many other methods. The Bible we use is the one based on the translation published by the North Korean government. We also broadcast the Bible into North Korea by radio. We have never sent a single political flyer into North Korea, only Bibles and Bible study materials. This is what our underground Christian partners in North Korea request.”

Foley says that Voice of the Martyrs Korea also sends Bibles and Bible study materials to China, the countries of the former Soviet Union, and countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, in partnership with underground Christians in each country. It also provides persecution training to the Christians in these countries, through books and videos.

Pastor Foley says that Voice of the Martyrs Korea is eager to cooperate fully with next week’s police investigation. He says he hopes the investigation can restore what he says is the “spirit of partnership we have experienced with government authorities at all levels” since the organization began in 2003, first as a member of KCCMO and then as an independent NGO.

“Balloon launching into North Korea is only about 10% of what we do,” says Foley. “Since 2005, we have had a warm and mutually respectful relationship with police, military, and government officials in Seoul, Gyeonggi Province, and throughout Korea, in all our work. Then two weeks ago Governor Lee called for investigation of all balloon launchers, alleging that launchers were committing fraud, misusing donations, and endangering the public. Suddenly, after 14 years of complete cooperation with authorities at all levels on our balloon work, this vital ministry activity was banned overnight through the confusing application of dozens of city laws related to everything from trash disposal and outdoor advertising. To us, that is a dangerous precedent that could threaten all responsible private ministry activity by us and other Christian ministries in the future.” Foley asks, “North Korea hates our radio broadcasting and our publication in South Korea of the testimonies of persecuted North Korean Christians. Will they also be banned when North Korea demands?”

Foley adds, “Rather than using litter laws to take away our NGO status, we would urge Governor Lee and other authorities to permit us to join with them to find ways to preserve responsible, non-governmental, private ministry activities so that freedom of religion and freedom of speech can continue to co-exist in South Korea, just as they have throughout the history of Voice of the Martyrs Korea.”

“But if the authorities decide just to throw away our long history of safety and transparency and cooperation and declare us to be criminals, then we will willingly and joyfully submit to their determination. Christians are called to obey only God but also to be subject to the penalties of the government whenever ministry is declared to be a crime.”

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