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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The Ideal North Korean Missionary: A Tough Old Bird

Our post this week is a surprise guest post by our daughter, Margaret. It’s not because I’m too busy to write or because I’m on vacation that I’m having her guest post. It’s because what she wrote here is better than anything I wrote this week. Frankly, it’s the best explanation I’ve read about our Underground University school and our overall philosophy and methodology of mission. Marg has surpassed me in the ability to write reports, and she often sees things I don’t. This, to me, is a welcome development. Have at it, Marg.


Think for a moment about the ideal evangelist to North Korea.

The image that comes to most minds is a Korean-American or South Korean with a passion for North Korea and a background in the American or South Korean church. Someone who bravely crosses the border, bringing with them the gospel or—at the very least—a message: God loves you.

The North Korean government is all too pleased to allow these “ideal evangelists” access to NK. In fact, according to the testimonies of North Korean defectors, the government even stocks cities that are open to foreign tourism with North Koreans trained to take advantage of missionaries like this. They even run fake churches through which they pull in funds for persecuting real Christians. Kim Il Sung himself even spoke of this type of missionary assistance when he said,

Some people ask me if I was much influenced by Christianity while I grew up. I was not affected by religion, but I received a great deal of humanitarian assistance from Christians, and in return I had an ideological influence on them.

North Korea has woven a thick and complex web to prevent outsiders from understanding its inner-most machinations. Our “ideal” evangelist is little more a fly caught in this web, unable to distinguish his or her way about the system. Perhaps the ideal evangelist to North Korea is not a well-intentioned foreigner but a North Korean.

Only a North Korean understands the lay of the web (that’s the reason they’re still alive). North Koreans not only understand how to navigate the twisted strings of North Korea but understand how to navigate undetected. In the words of Christ, they know how to be “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

This much is intuitive. But people often make the mistake of assuming the ideal North Korean evangelist to be young. Young North Koreans, after all, have more energy and, because their minds are still malleable, they can quickly “throw off” the coat of Juche (North Korea’s religion) and “put on” the coat of Christianity… or so we think.

In reality, younger North Koreans have an easier time “throwing off” the coat of Juche but struggle to “put on” the coat of Christianity. After all, they have their entire lives ahead of them and must care for their families. What practical help can Christianity possibly give them? No, older North Korean are much more amenable to the gospel. While they do struggle to abandon the Juche ideology and are tempted to seek their own prosperity (just like everyone else), older North Koreans have a sense that their life has already been used and find purpose in a God who has plans for them yet.

One of the most interesting things about North Korean society is that there is an implicit respect for age. Older ideas, places, and people are all revered by North Koreans (unless they conflict with the North Korean ideology, of course). Older North Koreans have a special place in the lives of their younger counterparts. This is especially true when it comes to the North Koreans who have spilled out into other countries such as China, Thailand, Russia, and South Korea because North Koreans in these areas have often had to leave their families behind. When these North Koreans look at our students, their hearts often melt because they are reminded of their mothers.

During a mission trip, one sex-trafficked North Korean woman told a VOMK staff member they always look forward to the times when VOMK comes because we always bring their “mothers.” Several other ministries have reached out to this woman, but she (and several other women) have expressed that VOMK is their favorite visitor simply because we bring their “mothers”—older North Korean women. One sex-trafficked woman had a sister in the hospital but still came to the VOMK training event. Another had been severely beaten by her husband the week before (to the point when her clavicle had split in two), yet chose time with her “mothers” over a trip to the hospital.

A VOMK staff member says this: “The NK ladies miss their mothers so much that when they are hugged by our students, their souls melt in God’s comfort. It’s funny to say, but they prefer older students.”

Many people look down on our UU students. They’re old. They’re struggling to understand Christianity. They still believe some of the lies that the North Korean government has taught them. But it’s through their very weakness that God imbues them with strength—few people can worm their ways into a heart like our UU students.

This is what makes UU so important.

Through UU, students are not only able to do mission trips—they’re able to learn more deeply about the God they share with everyone they meet. Our UU students aren’t just older North Korean men and women. They’re men and women who are attending church regularly and directing other North Koreans to do the same. They’re men and women who are already in positions of leadership—sometimes in their church, sometimes in their families, and sometimes in their spheres of influence—who are already sharing God with everyone around them. UU exists simply to help these students better understand the God to whom they are already introducing people.

Our staff regularly meet with students (even traveling long distances to visit them in their homes) and answer questions they have about Christianity and the Christian life. Students ask questions about everything from what the Bible says about drinking to the reason why God allowed their family to be sent back to North Korea. Staff don’t simply answer questions, however. They encourage students to discover the answers themselves through ministry.

Every student is involved in some VOMK ministry during their studies in UU. In addition to going on mission trips, some students oversee and encourage students from UT (a school for North Koreans who want to learn the rudiments of the Christian faith) or help launch balloons into North Korea.

Perhaps the ideal missionary to North Korea isn’t a young South Korean seminary graduate. Perhaps it’s the elderly North Korean woman who desperately read their Bible every day despite understanding little of it and who continue to direct people toward a God she doesn’t completely understand… yet.

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It’s the core technology for North Korean ministry. But it can’t be imported from the West because of its scarcity there.

In Underground Technology and Underground University, our discipleship and missionary schools for North Korean defectors in Seoul, we don’t teach South Korean or Western strategies of evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. We don’t even teach missional “best practices”.

Instead, we (and North Korean Christians figure prominently into that “we”) the time-honored, field-tested methods of the North Korean underground church.

Our student missionaries and graduates have been deploying these methods for more than ten years to reach North Koreans from Russia to Thailand, Europe to the Middle East, the West Sea to the East Sea.

Students share the Christian proclamation using everything from MP3 players to SD cards to USBs, and lots of other really cool technologies.

But the core technology of the North Korean underground church remains the Cross. The Cross is the mark we bear on our bodies in this world as a result of having received and remained faithful to the proclamation of the coming Kingdom. The Cross follows the preaching of the gospel like day follows night.

I received an update from one of our team members this month. She has been distributing MP3 players with the Bible recording to North Korean female factory workers who are sent abroad by the North Korean government to make money for the regime. One of the factory workers wrote this thank you note:

“Every single word in the Bible has touched my heart and it has given me the enlightenment that the world I am living is not about all visible things I can see. Now I realize that there is no being like God at all in the world. Jesus was crucified to save us. I would like to commit my body and mind to lift up the great God and Jesus higher through my life.”

And just like that, another new North Korean Christian gets ready to take up her cross.

“And so, dear brothers and sisters,” says the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:1, “I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice–the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.

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