Response to Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee’s Call For Investigation of Balloon Launching NGOs

For 15 years, Voice of the Martyrs Korea has experienced only the utmost respect from all levels of Gyeonggi Province’s government and law enforcement, due to our spirit of cooperation and communication. As a result, we were stunned and, frankly, extremely puzzled by Governor Lee’s statement today.

Voice of the Martyrs Korea has only ever launched the Bible by balloon. We have never printed or distributed political flyers at any time. In fact, we launch the Bible translation published by the North Korean government itself, which the North Korean government repeatedly affirms in its public statements is completely legal in North Korea and is in accord with the freedom of religion granted all citizens in the North Korean constitution.

As regards our financial accountability, Voice of the Martyrs Korea is regularly recognized internationally for our commitment to the highest possible accounting standards. In addition to an annual financial audit conducted by an independent Korean CPA firm, Voice of the Martyrs Korea is accredited by the Christian Council on Financial Accountability in Korea (CCFK). Our external accountability ensures strictest compliance with all Korean and international (FASB) accounting standards. Individuals wishing to learn more about our commitment to financial transparency can visit https://vomkorea.com/en/about/financial-accountability/.

As Voice of the Martyrs Korea has always done, we will continue to obey God and be subject to the authorities. In the case of balloon launching, the next time the weather enables a launch, we will keep the promise we made to underground Christians 18 years ago: We will send Bibles to North Korea by balloon. If this is then accounted as a crime, we will willingly and joyfully be accounted criminals and accept the punishment given to us by the authorities.

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Why we will continue sending Bibles by balloon into North Korea

Park Sang Hak and I have almost nothing in common. His group, Fighters for a Free North Korea, launches political flyers using low-tech, low-altitude balloons. My group, Voice of the Martyrs Korea, launches Bibles using high-tech, high-altitude balloons. My group launches the same content year after year and spends all our time and money on technology to make launches safer and more accurate. His group uses the same technology year after year and spends all its time and money on developing new content to make his flyers as up-to-date and impactful as possible.

But what Park Sang Hak and I share is a non-negotiable vision of Korea where ordinary Koreans, north and south, are able to interact with each other directly, freely, and fully, without the mediation of the state. And we are convinced that such a vision is so fundamental to Korean history and identity, yet by definition so incapable of being brought to reality by political structures alone, that it requires all of us ordinary people in Korea, north and south, foreigner and citizen, freedom fighter and pastor, to risk our lives and our property to bring it about.

Disintermediation—that is, excluding governments from the conversations and interactions between ordinary Korean people—is not the spirit of the Panmunjom Declaration. The spirit of Panmunjom is state mediation of relationships through so-called inter-Korean “exchanges”—e.g., cultural exchanges, sports exchanges, and economic exchanges. Such exchanges are to be arranged by the governments of the two Koreas at the times and locations they consider appropriate. The participants in the exchanges will be those approved by their respective states. The conversations and interactions that will take place in such exchanges will necessarily be suitable by government standards. The north/south family reunions may provide a glimpse of what relationship-by-exchange looks like.

The South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU) first shared this vision of exchanges with us at VOM Korea in May 2018, when they called us to insist that we discontinue our balloon launches. “You should no longer launch Bibles, but if you follow our guidelines, perhaps one day soon you will be able to share your Bibles with North Koreans in the cultural exchanges we will be arranging,” said the MOU official. 

Now, two years later, balloon launching has been declared a crime in South Korea. It has been declared a crime not because it is inherently a dangerous activity. Instead, it has been declared a crime because it is against the spirit of Panmunjom, the spirit of state-mediated exchanges. Balloon launching threatens both Pyongyang and Seoul because it contends that ordinary Korean people, south and north, neither need nor benefit from state mediation in order to speak to one another meaningfully and advance their inter-personal interests.

North Korea has promised to retaliate against balloon launching by committing criminal acts of mass violence against whole South Korean communities. In North Korean state anthropology, “human” is a designation bestowed by the state, in recognition of the recipient’s usefulness and loyalty to the state. It is a conditional designation, one that is revoked when the state determines that the recipient is no longer useful or loyal. This is why Kim Yo Jong’s description of North Korean defectors as “mongrel dogs” and “human scum hardly worth their value as human beings” is not mere political rhetoric. It is an accurate expression of North Korean anthropology.

It is also why North Korea can attack whole South Korean communities. In its reporting of the destruction of the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea’s KCNA said “those who have sheltered the scum” must “pay dearly for their crimes”. If South Korean communities are harboring balloon launchers, then they are no longer useful or loyal to the Kim family and are thus legitimated as targets for destruction. But if these communities turn balloon launchers away—and if they turn against balloon launchers themselves, treating us as potentially dangerous criminals—then these South Korean communities can once again be regarded as human and thus spared the payment for their “crimes”.

Thus the first “cultural exchange” of the Panmunjom Declaration has now taken place: South Korea has exchanged its definition of “human” for the North Korea one. South Korean authorities now define us balloon launchers, not the North Korean state, as the criminals who threaten peace, safety, and prosperity. Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee even speculates that our “unforgiveable” motivation for launching is to “make a little money”. We launchers are no longer citizens upholding a vision of Korea where ordinary Koreans, north and south, are able to interact with each other directly, freely, and fully, without the mediation of the state. Instead, because we uphold this vision, we are now criminals.

Though it is now the balloon launchers who have committed “unforgiveable” crimes, soon it will be those of us who broadcast by radio into North Korea. That is because state opposition to balloon launching is not an opposition to tactics but to anthropology. Radio broadcasting upholds the same vision of direct contact between Koreans, north and south, without the mediation of the state. Until governments mediate all interactions between ordinary Koreans, north and south, the Supreme Dignity’s offense can never be cooled down.

This is why we launch Bibles, and why we read the Bible on our radio programs. The anthropology of the Bible is that one is human not because one is loyal or useful to anyone but rather because one is created in the image of God. This is an unconditional “imprint” of humanity which cannot be granted or regulated by states as a part of any “exchange”. Governments are created by God to uphold that unconditional imprint, not to replace it with their own.

It is an anthropology that poses equal challenge to the governments on both sides of the DMZ.

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Today, balloon launches became a crime in South Korea. What now?

Authorities in Gyeonggi Province, South Korea (the area where most balloon launches happen) announced new restrictions on balloon launching today, effectively criminalizing and heavily fining not only launching but even the transport of materials for launch.

Here are a few notes from Gyeonggi Province Deputy Governor Lee’s announcement today:

Gyeonggi province Deputy Governor Lee has issued an entry ban on those who plan to fly leaflets over the border. He says launchers will be arrested if spotted.

The Deputy governor briefing made 3 points:

1. Designating certain areas of the province as “danger zones” and prohibiting entry of launchers into those areas.

2. Preemptively stopping the movements of vehicles and other balloon launch preparation actions.

3. Using Gyeonggi province’s special judicial police force to investigate, control, report these activities.

The argument given in the briefing was that NK has warned of balloon launches from the border area as a provocation. The Deputy Governor says “leafleting threatens the safety of residents so we ban the entry of leafletters entering the region. They will be arrested on site if spotted by the local government special police force.”

“The current 「Basic Act on Disaster and Safety Management」 Article 41 (Establishment of Hazardous Areas), Article 43 (Traffic Restriction, etc.) and Article 46 (Emergency Measures by the Metropolitan City/Do Governor) refer to the city’s provincial governor’s life and safety responsibilities. If necessary, it is possible to instruct emergency measures such as setting up hazardous areas and restricting traffic.”

Transport of gas for launching will also result in a fine or arrest.

The city plans to block the entrance to the “danger zones” with the cooperation of the police, etc., and if launchers attempt to enter the area, it will “take measures through the Special Judicial Police Corps in Gyeonggi-do, etc.,”

Materials sent to North Korea without prior notice to the authorities are regarded as illegal advertisements, and fines will be imposed according to the outdoor advertisement law.

Our VOMK response to the announcement follows.

Over the past 15 years, the respectful cooperation between Voice of the Martyrs Korea and Korean police, military, and intelligence services has served as an admirable international model for how the freedoms of speech and religion, the protection of property and public safety, and the advancement of political and economic peace and prosperity can all be safeguarded and jointly fostered, even during the most dangerous moments of inter-Korean tension and conflict.

We are disappointed that authorities have chosen to suddenly and unilaterally disregard this proven model of effective cooperation. We are grieved that they have criminalized even the most responsible and cooperative exercise of long-cherished rights as an inherent, imminent threat to peace and prosperity.

We call on all Korean authorities to return to their long-demonstrated commitment to cooperative, responsible, respectful dialogue among all stakeholders—listening not only to state actors but also NGOs and citizens who have acted responsibly for many years.  We believe this remains the only truly safe path forward. Cooperative, respectful preservation of the full range of rights has served us all well over the past 15 years, even during the times of greatest national danger. It has ensured that we can all make progress in all of the areas of importance to all of us, even in the midst of the most threatening rhetoric and actions.

Our commitment at Voice of the Martyrs Korea remains unchanged: We will continue to support all Korean Christians, both North and South, as they follow Christ. This is what our suffering Christian brothers and sisters in North Korea request, and it is what Christ commands.

There are times when governments criminalize the actions we as Christians are called to undertake. In such times, we remain subject to the governing authorities. This means that we will continue to do what God calls us to do, and we will willingly and joyfully suffer whatever penalty the authorities lay upon us as the price for that faithfulness. 

Additional information:

Voice of the Martyrs Korea has continuously pioneered numerous innovations to make balloon launches safe for all Koreans North and South, including:

–the use exclusively of non-flammable helium gas;

–predictive computer modeling and GPS tracking, to ensure that balloons are only launched when it is certain they will reach their intended destinations in North Korea;

–high-altitude balloons, which cross into North Korea well above the range of ground artillery;

–environmentally-friendly materials and clean-up practices; and, most of all,

–a cooperative arrangement with all enforcement authorities to ensure that the goals of all stakeholders may be achieved as far as possible.

We have launched without negative impact to life or property during far more contentious periods in North/South relations. Positively, in the past 15 years, the percentage of North Korean citizens who have seen a Bible with their own eyes has increased from essentially 0% to nearly 8%, according to the North Korean Human Rights Database.

We have never at any time sent any form of political message or propaganda but only the Chosun Bibles published by the North Korean government and protected under the North Korean constitution’s freedom of religion for all North Korean citizens.

All of our North Korean ministry projects are undertaken at the request and advice of underground North Korean Christians.

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