How North Koreans Can Help Us Tell Our Life Stories the Way God Wants Us To

A Guest Post from Dr. Hyun Sook Foley

The estimated population of North Korea is nearly twenty-five million people, but North Korea is actually the country of one story: the story of Kim Il Sung.

As North Koreans grow up, they have to memorize more than one hundred stories about Kim Il Sung’s life. That includes exact dates, place names, details, everything. Kim Il Sung is the subject of nearly every North Korean’s story, and Kim Il Sung is the hero of nearly every North Korean’s story.

But when North Koreans escape their country and enter South Korea (where more than thirty thousand North Korean defectors have now resettled), they are confronted with the reality that Kim Il Sung is no hero. For North Koreans, learning to tell their own stories as anything other than Kim Il Sung’s story is quite challenging. They quickly latch on to the stories that others tell about them, and those stories are always deficit stories: Defectors are considered traitors by North Korea, and even in South Korea there is strong prejudice against them. They are viewed as lazy, stupid, dishonest, and untrustworthy.

Many North Korean defectors internalize these negative narratives about themselves, and the results are literally fatal: North Korean defectors have the highest rate of death due to suicide of any group in the world: more than 16 percent. That shows how deadly it is to adopt any narrative frame but God’s for telling your life story.

That’s why I became involved in listening to the life stories of North Korean defectors and coaching them to retell their stories using a “hero’s journey” framework. It really was a matter of life and death! Virtually every defector with whom I have ever sat down with tells me his or her story as a victim story, as a story of worthlessness, unbearable pain, or both. The person’s life is filled with memories of starvation and concentration camps, combined with the worship of the leaders that made it happen—a worship that is ultimately transformed into hatred.

So after I hear them share their stories this way, I share with them about God, who, according to Revelation 12:11, intends for us to triumph over our enemies by the blood of His Son, Jesus, and by the word of our testimony. In other words, our very survival depends on the stories we tell about ourselves. I advise my North Korean defector brothers and sisters to learn to tell the stories God tells about them, because if they don’t, they will end up living forever inside the story of Kim Il Sung, even though they have left North Korea physically.

After I coached North Korean defectors in these truths enough times, I started to realize that the same is true for the rest of us too. We also have to learn how to tell our stories the way God tells them. If we don’t, we will always tell (and live in) stories about ourselves that lead to unhappy endings.

The good news is that those who experience the most pain and suffering and setbacks and life-shattering tragedies are those who go on to do the greatest things and have the best lives—if they learn to see, understand, and tell their own “hero’s journey” story the way God tells it.

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Satan’s New Strategy: Save the Church from Itself

Satan is always seeking to destroy the church, but his strategy updates with the times.

Back when Voice of the Martyrs founder Rev. Richard Wurmbrand spent 14 years in a Romanian prison under Cold War Communists for practicing his Christian faith, the persecutors were easy to identify: They were the ones who were trying to kill the Christians and crush the church.

Today the opponents of Christianity are harder to identify. In places like China and North Korea, they present themselves not as opponents of the faith but rather as its most principled and enlightened proponents.

What the governments (and government-sponsored theologians) in these countries oppose, they say, is not Christianity but rather the captivity of Christianity to Western imperialism. They contend that when citizens in their countries get involved with Westernized Christianity, they become belligerent toward indigenous religions and ideologies, refusing to cooperate with their own government’s efforts to promote good citizenship, religious co-existence, and a better future for all. They become, in other words, bad citizens. In this way of thinking, in order for Christianity to become a positive social force in China and North Korea, the state must ensure that Christianity stops behaving like a foreign import and instead develops as a domestic product. Christianity must “de-Westernize” and—in the terminology favored by the Chinese government and its state-sponsored theologians—”Sinicize”.

This kind of talk finds a sympathetic ear among the general global public these days. The “Sinicization” of Christianity seem like a courageous cultural “me-too” movement, where Chinese Christians can finally reject the unwanted centuries-old advances of the white male Western theologians and churches whose money and power have long silenced Chinese voices and Chinese ways of encountering and worshiping the Christian God.

The idea that the main problem with Christianity is Christians is hardly new. Even the idea that Christianity in places like China and North Korea must find its voice through liberation from its Western imperialist roots has a long history. Rev. Wurmbrand ended up in prison in part because he was the lone voice of dissent in a “Congress of the Cults” where Romanian Christian leaders heaped praise on the new communist government as saviors of a long-captive church.

What is new, however, is the evangelical church in the rest of the world heaping praise on this strategy as well.

Upon reflection, it is not hard to understand the attraction of evangelicals to working through these state-sponsored churches in places like North Korea and China. Partnering with underground Christians is dangerous, illegal, unpopular, politically problematic, impractical, and necessarily small scale. In contrast, partnering with government-sanctioned churches potentially yields a positive public witness for Christianity. To know us, the hope goes, is to love us. Evangelicals reason that by engaging in religious tourism, speaking at state-sponsored churches and events, and funding serious amounts of humanitarian aid—all things that communist governments love—goodwill will be fostered and the official door will open wider for more Christian involvement. Such a missions strategy, the thinking goes, could ultimately end up reaching exponentially more people for Christ in places like North Korea than the underground church ever could.

But there is a fundamental flaw with such a strategy: Any time a state cuts its Christian citizens off from the church around the world and the church throughout history, the inevitable result is imperialist Christianity. No one should know that better than Christians in the West. Western imperialist Christianity flourished during the Hundred Years War, when Western Christians themselves were divided into national churches.

But the problem is not an inherently Western one, nor even a white male Western one. The root of the word “imperialism” is the Latin imperium, which means “to rule”.  Any time Christianity is conscripted in support of a government’s rule—any government’s rule—it becomes merely a means of advancing a worldly imperium. But, as the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 3:20, “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  


This is precisely what makes governments nervous—communist governments today, and Western governments in previous centuries. The one holy catholic and apostolic church is not created by lump sums, i.e., the Chinese church plus the North Korean church plus the Western church. As Paul takes great pains to note in addressing the Christians in each of his letters, there are only Christians in China, North Korea, and the West—not Chinese Christians, North Korean Christians, and Western Christians. Christians are united not first with their nations, and then next with a national church which is somehow then united with churches of other times and places. Instead, Christians in every time and place are directly united in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church that transcends time and geography. They have one Lord, Jesus, and one country, heaven.

In a sense, this is what makes evangelical Christians nervous as well. Evangelicalism emphasizes personal faith so strongly that it matters little to most evangelicals whether a Christian is in China or of China, so long as that Christian has a personal relationship with Jesus. That is sufficient ticket to heaven in today’s evangelical parlance. But as Jesus himself noted, no one can serve two imperiums without hating one and loving the other. Heavenly citizenship contrasts with earthly citizenship—whether Chinese, North Korean, or Western—at least as much as it overlaps. The fact that modern evangelicals struggle to articulate how shows just how cut off we ourselves are from the church across time and geography.

All of this brings us back to Rev. Wurmbrand in his cell at Jilava Prison. In the end, it was not his personal convictions and relationship with God that kept him connected to Christ. He was quick to point out that under the right circumstances any prisoner will forget the Lord’s Prayer, every Bible verse, and even one’s own name and nationality. What kept him—and us—connected is membership in the one body of Christ. This membership, it turns out, cannot be cut off by either nations or the churches eager to do business with and through them, because it is guaranteed by the Christ who will not let anyone snatch us out of his hand.

And it turns out that what is true of individual believers is also true of the church: The Apostle Paul was persuaded that neither principalities nor powers—the stuff that countries and their governments are made of—could separate us from the body of Christ. That means that any effort to separate Christians from each other—for example, luring evangelical Christians around the world into partnership with monocultural, ahistorical state-sanctioned churches in North Korea and China, instead of drawing North Korean and Chinese Christians into the one, holy. Catholic, and apostolic church that crosses all bounds of geography and time—will ultimately be exposed not as an exciting new chapter in world missions but as another futile effort by Satan to destroy the church of God.

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An Unexpected Visitor

(Another Margaret Foley masterpiece here. Great insights into how we do our “undercover” work in broad daylight and yet evade detection, because our missionaries and base leaders are on the 1 Corinthians 1:26-30 plan.)

You are a North Korean security agent.

A few weeks ago, a North Korean boat stationed on the coast of China was reported to have mysteriously acquired waders. The waders weren’t expensive or revolutionary, but their sudden acquisition was suspicious. These workers, after all, make very little money and have limited permissions—some of them cannot even leave the ship. How were they able to obtain waders?

As a North Korean security agent, you’re a pretty smart person. You know that missionaries often travel to China with supplies and pass them on to any North Koreans they come across. While the supplies aren’t controversial, missionaries will often slip anti-government materials—such as Bibles, hymnals, and discipleship materials—into the supplies, and these items are more dangerous than chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons. As Kim Il Sung once said, “Only Christianity can cut the root of our communism.”

So you’re watching the fishing boat from afar, waiting to catch the missionary red-handed.

Faces bob along the pier and you carefully examine each of them in search of your target. Some of these faces look more suspicious than others. There are even a few American and South Korean faces mixed among the sea of Chinese. None of these even slow their gait as they pass the ship in question. There are a few Chinese individuals who look suspicious, but none of these show too much interest in the ship either.

Day fades into night. Night fades into day.

There is still no sign of your target, so you assume they must not have come yesterday. That is until you see a new crew member wearing waders. However, when you search the ship later on, there doesn’t seem to be any new items—just the waders.

What’s going on?

As you correctly inferred, a missionary is bringing scripture to these agents along with any necessities they need (like waders). The scripture (and the hymnal) is actually contained within an MP3 device, which is much easier to hide during searches than a physical Bible. Since this Bible is Faith Comes By Hearing’s reading of the Bible in Korean, these fishermen are even able to listen to the Bible (and to hymns) as they work. [NOTE: This version is read in the South Korean dialect, which is 40% divergent from the North Korean dialect and, therefore, a little difficult for North Koreans to understand. Just this year, however, Voice of the Martyrs Korea partnered with Faith Comes By Hearing to record a North Korean dialect of the scripture. This is the version we will be using in the future.]

The fatal mistake you made, however, was assuming that this missionary was some sort of foreigner. This missionary is a North Korean woman and—despite the intensity and danger of her work—looks just like your average North Korean woman living across the border. (Since several North Korean women sell themselves [or are sold by the North Korean government] to Chinese men, you didn’t think much of the female North Korean faces that passed by you.) As a North Korean woman who has survived the worst of the regime, she knows the importance of security. She knows how you—a North Korean security agent—operate and is keen to avoid putting herself in your line of sight. She even routinely switches names and locations in order to avoid being found out.

Understandably, then, we can’t tell you her name or any specifics about her ministry, but we can tell you that this sister is constantly putting herself in danger just to bring the truth of Christ to her fellow North Koreans.

Nowhere is too dangerous or too complex for this partner. As she moves locations and changes names, she is also changing her places of ministry. She brings scripture and supplies to North Korean factory workers, to North Korean fishermen, and even to North Korean defectors. Since security is vital in her line of work, this partner will often have to go for extended periods of time without seeing the people who she’s discipling through these ministry packs. However, there are some North Koreans who this partner is able to disciple on a regular basis.

When it comes down to it, however, this partner isn’t a super-spy—she’s just a normal woman. She has a family, a child, and questions about Christianity. So in addition to partnering with her, VOMK continues to disciple her—just like we disciple any North Korean we work with.

Even if you—as a state security agent—had accounted for the fact that your missionary might be a North Korean woman, you would have completely overlooked our partner’s presence. Why? Because our partner is just your average old lady. Even if you were on the lookout for a North Korean woman, you would never assume that an old woman would be willing to risk both her own life to spread the gospel to a group of fishermen.

But that is the heart our partner has.

“We should not take the opportunity to worship [in safety] for granted, but we should think of those who are not aware of God in their pitiful situations,” this partner says. “We must pray for them.”

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