“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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The North Korea-South Korea Summit and the Panmunjom Declaration: Let’s Wait To Hear From North Korean Christians

Voice of the Martyrs Korea is built on this fundamental principle: When seeking to understand and interpret matters related to North Korean Christians, it is best to ask North Korean Christians. In fact, we believe that before we pray for or help North Korean Christians, we should seek to learn from them–not only about North Korea, but also about how each of us can be more faithful Christians where God has placed us.

This is the best counsel I can give regarding questions about the impact of Friday’s North/South Summit on North Korean Christians. It can certainly seem challenging and time-consuming to find a North Korean Christian to ask about such matters. The voices and opinions of government leaders, reporters, media commentators, and North Korean analysts are more readily at hand. I noted no shortage of Christians around the world borrowing phrases from Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In themselves to hail the summit as the dawning of a divine new day. I saw Facebook posts over the weekend from Christians overflowing with emotion as they described the events of the summit as God’s answer to their own years of prayer–a “kairos” moment the likes of which we have not previously seen.

And yet I believe that one thing Christians around the world can do in moments like these, rather than rushing to share our own thoughts and opinions and those of others, is to remind the world–and each other–that North Korean Christians are real, and are one body with us, and are God’s main spiritual provision for North Korea, and are aware of most of the events that you and I are seeing, and have perspectives which they are willing to share from which we fellow Christians can learn much. Remember, for example, that between 60 and 80 percent of North Korean defectors maintain regular monthly contact with their relatives inside of North Korea, and that North Koreans have developed durable and reliable systems of information transmissions that allow news about current events to travel more rapidly than we might imagine. It perhaps makes for a less dramatic Facebook post to say, “Let’s wait to hear from North Korean Christians about this summit,” but it is possible that such an effort to hold a space for those who rarely are given the microphone can accomplish more than our own tearfully hopeful ruminations. And likely something of Hebrews 13:3 is operative in such waiting behavior: “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” Reminding the world that we should wait to hear from them is one of the concrete and practical ways we can remember the persecuted.


As we await their comments, we can read carefully what is being written and shared by secular commentators, comparing it to what we have already learned from North Korean Christians. Is complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization the peace for which North Korean Christians have taught us to pray? No, it is not.

And that is not because North Korean Christians are naive or provincial or impractical or idealistic. It is because North Korean Christians have reminded us that the “North Korea situation” is only secondarily political but primarily spiritual in nature. It is about national captivity and subservience to evil, of which nuclear weapons are only symptomatic. Addressing symptoms often leads to overlooking root causes. The root cause here is the North Korean government’s redefinition of what it means to be human–not as “one created in the image of God”, but rather as “one useful and loyal to the Kim family”.

Many Christians around the world seemed to see in the events of the summit generational spiritual strongholds broken, and North Korea and Kim Jong Un somehow set free for new thoughts and actions in service to God. But we in the free world are always woefully naive about the depth, nature, intransigence, and remarkably deceptive character of evil. We need our brothers and sisters from persecuted countries to remind us what evil is really like, since they are the ones daily seared by its lash. It is not that they are somehow too jaded, too burnt out, too close to the situation to hope rightly. In fact, it is because they know the evil we are dealing with that they also can know real hope when they see it. And they can teach us to distinguish real hope from counterfeit, and to wait on the Lord who rarely works on human timetables or through media spectacles.

The North Korean Christians with whom I communicated over the weekend were surprised that Christians around the world were quick to receive what Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In were sharing as something new. Were we even to review the previous North/South summits, we would see nearly identical sentiments, wording. proposals, and even photos and special meals put forward. Consider, for example, this 1991 New York Times report from the first inter-Korean summit:

Leaders of North and South Korea signed a treaty of reconciliation and nonaggression this morning, renouncing armed force against each other and saying that they would formally bring the Korean War to an end 38 years after the fighting ceased.

The agreement would also re-establish some measure of regular communication between the two countries, including telephone lines, mail, some economic exchanges and the reunion of some families who have been separated since war broke out in 1950. It would also commit the countries to rebuilding railway and road links across the heavily guarded border, known as the Demilitarized Zone, which has been the symbol of the armed division of the country for almost four decades.
Officials on both sides described the accord as the first step toward what they term the inevitable reunification of the Korean peninsula…

Lee Dong Bok, South Korea’s chief spokesman, termed the agreement “a historical milestone and an evolution in inter-Korean relations.”

In the accord, the two sides agreed to forswear all acts of terrorism or any efforts to overthrow the government of the other.

In his speech at the summit, Kim Jong Un talked about a new day but said that new day would come about “by thoroughly carrying out all preexisting North-South declarations and agreements.” The one subject omitted from all preexisting declarations and agreements, as well as the new Panmunjom Declaration, is Kim Jong Un’s war against his own people. North Korea has long been willing to talk about peace to its north, south, east, and west, but what it considers as matters inside its own house it always has–and continues to–view as off-limits not only for negotiation but even for mention. Christians around the world may think that it is a natural progression for North Korea to move from nuclear talks to human rights ones, but this is only because Christians around the world do not know North Korean very well. Even the small and infrequent mentions of human rights by the US in the present summit lead-up have caused North Korea to, in its words, doubt the US’ sincerity. Talking about the mistreatment of ordinary North Koreans by the North Korean government is in North Korea’s words like “pouring cold water” on the warm feelings generated by Friday’s summit. Please, in other words, focus on the projectiles we have pointed at you, not at those we use daily to gore our own people.

Such insights need not turn us into political commentators, but they should remind us how North Korean Christians have taught us to pray about North Korea, namely, that Kim Jong Un would meet the Lord Jesus and be transformed by him. This kind of talk is quickly dismissed by political commentators but should not be so quickly dismissed by Christians. Yes, God uses nations to discipline, reward, and punish other nations. But his actions and interests cannot be reduced to such matters. He is consistently portrayed in scripture as relentlessly focused on the heart of the leader. How can we students of scripture be so easily distracted from that in our prayers for the nations and their leaders, especially North Korea, the US, and South Korea?

And this is perhaps the greatest danger of the present moment: Like King Saul impatiently making sacrifice rather than waiting for Samuel to do so, we Christians are surprisingly willing to sacrifice what we have learned from North Korean Christians–and from the scriptures themselves–because we really would like to believe that our prayers are being answered in front of our eyes. We wipe away our tears and think about how we have prayed for several years for a breakthrough in North Korea, and we embrace Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In for seemingly offering one. But for North Korean underground Christians who have prayed for the coming of the Kingdom for more than one hundred years, beginning with the Japanese occupation and continuing through three generations of Kims, they have learned to be more patient and selective about the Kingdom for which they are praying. Having been trained by suffering, they will be far less likely to be deceived and far more likely to recognize the true Kingdom when it comes. Let us wait on their thoughts, counsel, and positive identification.

Among the North Korean Christians to whom we have spoken this weekend, their preliminary response to the Panmunjom Declaration has not been as optimistic as that of their brothers and sisters around the world. I think that ought to lead us to examine our own hearts and the content of our own prayers and the images we treasure of what we think the Kingdom will be like when it comes, and it should lead us to repent, and to redouble our efforts to learn from North Korean Christians, about North Korea if nothing else.

Here in Seoul we are digging in for a long summer. Attempts have been made to recruit some of our own constituents to spy on us. There are rumors daily about which of our ministry programs–balloons, radio, discipleship bases, North Korean defector missionary training–will and will not be targeted for constraint as the South Korean government seeks to carry out its promise in the Panmunjom Declaration to “completely cease all the hostile acts against each other in every domain including land, air and sea.” Broadcasting and balloons have consistently been described by North Korea as hostile acts, and we have already seen stormy weather emerging on both horizons.

Yet we have learned from North Korean Christians not to worry but instead to view all things as gifts from the hand of our God. New ministries are always emerging from whatever limitations are enforced upon us, along with new opportunities to participate in the suffering love of the Lord Jesus Christ for Korean people wherever they are found. Our gospel skunkworks has always been active, and it remains so. We may not be able yet to share openly what we are doing and planning, but rest assured that we spend little time, energy, or money protesting or worrying and a lot of time, energy, and money partnering with the North Korean church to reach North Koreans with the gospel today and everywhere. The Panmunjom Declaration neither advances nor retards that. We neither celebrate it or mourn it. Instead, we have learned from North Korean Christians to stay focused on the kind of peace and freedom that governments cannot grant, withhold, or achieve. North Korean underground believers have lived in that peace and freedom in Christ for more than a hundred years, and they are willing to teach the rest of us how it’s done. We must just be willing to wait to hear their voice, and his, and to learn with humble and patient spirits that transcend the latest made-for-Internet media cycle.

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Why I Don’t Pray for North Korea to “Open to the Gospel”

As I travel to speak about North Korea, I frequently hear Christians say, “I have been praying for many years for North Korea to open to the Gospel.”

This is a very understandable sentiment due to how North Korea is portrayed in the news. Take for instance the recent Associated Press article, Missionaries at border spread Christianity to North Korea in which I am quoted (though not in relation to the point I am seeking to make here). The article opens:

To the North Koreans gathered beneath a crucifix in an apartment in this northeastern Chinese border region, she is known as “mom.” She feeds them, gives them a place to stay and, on occasion, money.

In return, the 69-year-old Korean-Chinese woman asks them to study the Bible, pray and sing hymns. She also has a more ambitious, and potentially dangerous, goal: She wants the most trusted of her converts to return to North Korea and spread Christianity there.

Along the North Korean border, dozens of such missionaries are engaged in work that puts them and their North Korean converts in danger.

The article is true as far as it goes, but it is what is omitted that is most crucial to understanding the relationship between North Korea and Christianity, namely:

An estimated 100,000 North Koreans are Christians.

In other words, Christianity does not merely stand outside the door of North Korea and knock. Like yeast, Christianity continues to leaven the North Korean loaf.

And as I shared in These are the Generations, a book I wrote with third generation underground North Korean Christians, the kind of Christianity that leavens the North Korean loaf is North Korean Christianity. That is because Christianity first took root among Koreans in what is today North Korea (Pyongyang, most dramatically) before it took root among other Korean speakers. And it has continued to be practiced in North Korea without interruption since it arrived more than one hundred thirty years ago (or two hundred thirty years ago, in the case of Catholicism).

It has continued to be practiced without interruption, that is, but not without cost. It takes a lot of Christians to make 100,000 Christians inside North Korea. In other words, it’s hardly a static group. A third are in concentration camps. Some defect. Some are killed. Some apostasy.

But by and large, underground North Korean Christians are not waiting for the present regime to blow over in order to resume their Christian activities. They continue to evangelize and disciple in the face–or perhaps more accurately, in the teeth–of some of the strongest opposition to the Gospel in human history.

And, as such, we can learn a lot from them, if (a) we recognize that they exist and (b) we are humble to admit that the church at present is in desperate need of such learning. In my opinion, North Korean underground Christians and other persecuted Christians around the world are likely Christianity’s last best hope, since unlike the church in South Korea and America, they have not compromised with their culture and are thus paying the price for their non-compromise with their own blood. As Paul Minear notes with concern about the church in the West,

The Church has so emasculated the Gospel that it threatens no other power-structure. The Church no longer arouses hostility among the same elites and to the same degree as in the first century, but this is due not so much to a change in the operation of power-structures as to the Church’s betrayal of the Gospel itself.

Not so in North Korea. And so while I continue to do evangelism and discipleship with underground North Korean Christians, I do so in robust partnership with them today, not in the hopes that North Korea may one day “open up” so that the Gospel may “go in”. It is not the Word of God that is ever bound, the Apostle Paul notes rather matter-of-factly in 2 Timothy 2:9. Instead, I would add, it is we Christians in so-called “free” nations who are bound: bound to an emasculated version of the Gospel that is stymied in the absence of government-granted freedom of religion and so pain-averse that it does not know how to pass through closed doors the way its resurrected Lord calls it to.


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