North Korean NGO calls for increase in home visitations following defector starvation

Here’s an English language translation of the press release we sent to Korean Christian media in the wake of the starvation of the North Korean defector and her son here in Seoul last month. Many are calling for increased government welfare programs for North Korean defectors in light of the deaths. But we at VOMK are calling upon all of us Christians to a closer reading and living out of Matthew 25. As Dr. Foley says in the press release below, “If we Christians had done our job, Ms. Han would not have starved.” The Christian’s role is one that cannot be outsourced to the government, in any country. –Your brother Eric Foley

North Korean NGO calls for increase in home visitations following defector starvation

Voice of the Martyrs Korea today rejected calls for increased government aid for North Korean defectors and instead issued a challenge to churches and North Korean defector Christians themselves to substantially increase their home visitation of North Korean defectors.

The challenge comes in the wake of the death due to starvation of a North Korean woman identified as Ms. Han and her 6-year old son earlier this month. The death has led many North Korean defector advocates to call for increased welfare programs and payments for defectors.

But Voice of the Martyrs representative Hyun Sook Foley says that the key to preventing future deaths is not more government aid but a massive increase in home visitations by South Korean Christians and North Korean defector Christians. “The Ministry of Unification says it plans to address ‘blind spots’ in its aid programs, but the biggest blind spot we have is believing the government can what only the church can do,” said Representative Foley. “Only the church can bring the presence of Christ into a North Korean defector’s home. And only the presence of Christ in a North Korean defector’s home can remedy the epidemic levels of suicide, loneliness, and now even starvation that we are seeing.”

Foley’s ministry, Voice of the Martyrs Korea, has two full-time staff people whose primary responsibility is visiting North Korean defectors in their homes, as well as in hospitals and prisons. But Foley emphasizes that North Korean defectors themselves are always the most effective at visiting their fellow defectors. “That is why we operate two Christian discipleship training schools for North Korean defectors,” Foley says. “Defectors at the school are equipped to do home, hospital, and prison visitations and accompany VOMK staff to do visitations each week. The defectors teach us a lot about how we South Koreans can be more effective in North Korean ministry, if we are humble enough to learn.”

Foley notes that several of VOMK’s North Korean defector students lived in the same area as the woman who starved. “The students were hit hard by the death and resolved to expand their visitation efforts to make sure that no one living near them would suffer alone,” said Foley. Foley said to support those expanded efforts, VOMK this week hired a third staff person for the work. The ministry is preparing for a major North Korean defector home visitation initiative over Chuseok, when VOMK’s staff and students will deliver thousands of dumplings to North Korean defectors homes.

But Foley notes that the greatest need is for greater church involvement in visitation. “Because VOMK is not a church, whenever we visit a North Korean defector’s home and find a problem there, we call the defector’s church pastor and explain the dangerous situation to them,” said Foley. “Sadly, nearly 100% of the time the pastor had no idea the problem was there, even if the defector is dealing with a serious illness or depression. And even when we tell them, they are reluctant to visit the defector’s home because they are too busy. They are trained to believe that their role is to make their church services and activities warm and welcoming for North Korean defectors. But the main thing North Korean defectors need is not warm and welcoming church services. They need pastors and church members who can bring the warmth of Christ into their homes, prison cells, and hospital beds.”

Representative Foley believes that the starvation of Ms. Han and her son should shame Korean Christians, not the Ministry of Unification. “In Matthew 25, Jesus tells those on his left to depart from him because they did not visit him in his need,” she says. “The work of the church is visitation. When we visit we are to bring something to eat. Christ gives that responsibility to us, not to the government. If we Christians had done our job, Ms. Han would not have starved. If we are faithful to do the work Christ has assigned to us, such a thing will never happen again to North Korean defectors in our country.”

Representative Foley says VOMK invites Christians interested in volunteering in its North Korean defector ministry to call 02-2065-0703 or visit

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10 ways to pray for persecuted Christians…and 1 way you should never pray for them

Each Voice of the Martyrs organization in each country around the world is independent, but we share a common history and heritage. We also cooperate wherever possible, including in the production of resources. One of my favorite resources from the VOM family is a list of ten ways to pray for persecuted Christians. It comes from what we’ve collectively learned from persecuted Christians themselves about prayer. In case you’ve not seen it before or recently, here it is. As you read it, please note not only the ways that are listed, but see if you can detect the most common way that Christians pray for the persecuted that is not on this list:

10 Ways to Pray for Our Persecuted Family

1. Pray that persecuted believers will sense God’s presence (Heb 13:5).
2. Pray that they will feel connected to the greater body of Christ (1 Cor 12:20, 26).
3. Pray that they will experience God’s comfort when their family members are killed, injured, or imprisoned for their witness (2 Cor 1:3-5).
4. Pray that they will have more opportunities to share the gospel (Col 4:3).
5. Pray for their boldness to make Christ known (Phil 1:14).
6. Pray that they will forgive and love their persecutors (Matt 5:44).
7. Pray that their ministry activities will remain undetected by authorities or others who wish to silence them (Acts 9:25).
8. Pray that they will rejoice in suffering (Acts 5:41).
9. Pray that they will be refreshed through God’s Word and grow in their faith (Eph 6:17).
10. Pray that they will be strengthened through the prayers of fellow believers (Jude 20-25).

The most common persecution-related prayer I hear prayed by Christians when I travel to speak is notably not on the above list:

1 Way Never to Pray for Our Persecuted Family

1. Pray that the Lord might deliver persecuted Christians out of persecution and into freedom like we are able to enjoy.

That prayer seems to be the most commonsense one of all. More and more it certainly forms the basis not only for the praying but also for the thinking, acting, and speaking of the wider church with regard to persecution.

And democratic governments seem to agree. An increasing number of them convene ministerials and appoint special rapporteurs and ambassadors to address the “problem” of persecution, noting (correctly) that Christians are persecuted more than any other religious group.

But the idea that persecution is a problem–that it is bad, that it should be avoided and remedied, that governments, Christians, people of all faiths, and fair-minded humanitarians everywhere should do all they can to ensure that all human beings may believe and live out their beliefs without fear of reprisal–is an idea that is increasingly accepted by Christians without thorough theological examination.

This is regrettable.

While Robert Louis Wilken rightly notes the Christian origins of religious liberty in his recent book, Liberty in the Things of God, he makes an implicit assumption that is nearly universally shared these days; namely, that persecution (or what he generally calls “coercion” in the book) is human in origin. Some evangelicals might say Satanic.

But biblically, and within the church’s Great Tradition theologically, persecution is regarded as neither bad nor human nor Satanic in origin. It is a gift from God. As Martin Luther wrote:

A theologian of the cross (that is, one who speaks of the crucified and hidden God), teaches that punishments, crosses, and death are the most precious treasury of all and the most sacred relics which the Lord of this theology himself has consecrated and blessed, not alone by the touch of his most holy flesh but also by the embrace of his exceedingly holy and divine will, and he has left these relics here to be kissed, sought after, and embraced. Indeed fortunate and blessed is he who is considered by God to be so worthy that these treasures of the relics of Christ should be given to him; rather, who understands that they are given to him. For to whom are they not offered? As St. James says, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials” [James 1:2]. For not all have this grace and glory to receive these treasures, but only the most elect of the children of God.

And this was hardly an isolated occurrence of this theme in Luther’s writings. As Walther von Loewenich noted in his Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976):

Luther regarded cross and suffering as the church’s most precious treasure; but the church that bears Luther’s name has not often taken this sufficiently to heart. In Luther’s eyes a church that is all too militant and vocal in its politics is suspect. The true church, on the contrary, is a church of martyrs. The new humanity that Christ wanted is the suffering church. Only that church has the full right to call itself the church of Christ which follows her Lord in all things. Hence Luther lists cross and suffering among the marks of the church. In his book Of Councils and the Church, 1530, Luther counts seven marks by which the church can be recognized, and he would prefer to call them the seven sacraments of the church, if the term “sacrament” had not already taken on a different meaning. As the seventh mark of the church Luther mentions “the holy presence of the sacred cross”. Hence it is part of the church’s essence to be in suffering; a church of which that cannot be said has become untrue to its destiny.

Thus, according to Luther, a church which prays for Christians to be spared from persecution and suffering is a suspect church. It is a church which has become untrue to its destiny. That might explain why the church is so spiritually feeble in the countries where Christians do not suffer. This may be less a sign of the favor of God than of a suspect church that has become untrue to its destiny.

How might we in the wider church go about recovering our destiny? How might we become a true church rather than a suspect one?

One way is to take the VOM list of recommended prayers for the persecuted church and pray them for ourselves as well:

10 Ways to Pray for Ourselves (as Inspired by Our Persecuted Family)

1. Pray that we will sense God’s presence (Heb 13:5).
2. Pray that we will feel connected to the greater body of Christ (1 Cor 12:20, 26).
3. Pray that we will experience God’s comfort when our persecuted brothers and sisters are killed, injured, or imprisoned for their witness (2 Cor 1:3-5).
4. Pray that we will have more opportunities to share the gospel (Col 4:3).
5. Pray for our boldness to make Christ known (Phil 1:14).
6. Pray that we will forgive and love those who persecute our brothers and sisters (Matt 5:44).
7. Pray that our ministry activities will remain undetected by authorities or others who wish to silence us (Acts 9:25).
8. Pray that we will rejoice in the suffering of our persecuted brothers and sisters (Acts 5:41).
9. Pray that we will be refreshed through God’s Word and grow in our faith (Eph 6:17).
10. Pray that we will be strengthened through the prayers of our persecuted brothers and sisters (Jude 20-25).

Since there is one body, it makes sense to pray the same prayer for all of us. Receiving the persecution of Christians as a gift from God to the whole church is exactly the kind of break from worldly ways of thinking that we need to put us back on the right spiritual track.


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How Pastors Become Spies…and How to Stop It

Korean American pastor and former North Korean prisoner Kim Dong Chul admitted in an interview published this week that he had been spying for South Korea and the United States. By all accounts he was not a spy merely masquerading as a pastor. He was a pastor who was actively engaged in Christian ministry to North Koreans who also became a spy.

How does this happen? Or, as many are still asking this week, does this happen, or is it simply a false confession? We are so accustomed to the macabre claims made about missionaries by governments like China and North Korea that we assume that all accusations of missionary spying must be false.

And, indeed, many such claims are false and are made for the sake of justifying draconian suppression of all non-state religious activity in the name of responsible national security.

But sometimes pastors do become spies, especially in the closed places of the earth and their borders where one typically finds only pastors and spies. I don’t know Kim Dong Chul or the particulars of his case, and at VOM Korea we have an ironclad, no exceptions policy to avoid all contact or connection with individuals or organizations who we know or suspect have a working relationship of any kind (covert or overt) with any government. But even so, as I have previously noted,

American and South Korean espionage activity in and around North Korea is and always has been as common as air. It’s a veritable spy-versus-spy cartoon, and it’s easier to count the number of days you don’t run into a spy than the days you do. And the US, South Korean, and North Korean governments have been reaching out to NGOs, churches, missionaries, and NGOs for years as part of their efforts.

So how does it happen that a pastor becomes a spy? Sadly, government representatives are rarely forthcoming with their identities, motives, and goals when they first meet pastors. They often introduce themselves simply as Deacon X from ABC Church (and, in fact, they are a deacon at ABC Church, and a very good one). They might make a donation to the missionary’s ministry–a pretty large one, like a few thousand dollars, or a few such donations over a period of time. Eventually they meet the missionary personally over coffee in order to express interest in the missionary’s ministry and to learn more.

In other words, they begin by skillfully entrapping the missionary.

That doesn’t make the missionary a victim. Jesus commands us to be as wise as serpents, and it is beyond naive the way missionaries fall into such relationships without using proper discretion. They, like all of us, want shortcuts through the mundane things of life in order to free up time, energy, and attention to focus on what seems important to us: “the ministry”. (It is only later that we find that the mundane things are where the Lord does all of his ministry work.) Since it is easier to receive a large bank account transfer from Deacon X than it is to go around begging for donations, spending time with Deacon X at the coffee shop can become quite attractive to missionaries. Especially if Deacon X sounds like a person who really values your ministry but who just wants you to share a little information about what you know about what is going on in City X, where you have a discipleship base.

And so it begins. Each trip to the coffee shop draws the missionary further down the rabbit hole. Deacon X knows how to keep it all sounding theologically responsible and civically vital. And so after a few years, the missionary finds himself taking photos of ships at the behest of the CIA, as in the case of Kim Dong Chul.

Since this is how the process works, we have found over the years that the best way to stop it is simply to stay as far away from it as possible. For us, that looks like this:

  1. Don’t get involved with any governments at any time, either covertly or overtly. We don’t participate in government ministerials. We don’t supply information to government human rights reports. We don’t advise elected officials. And when deacons from ABC Church appear out of nowhere and start making good sized donations and asking questions about our ministry, we decline to meet at coffee shops–and we decline donations whenever we are uncertain or suspicious about their origin or motive. Many Christian organizations will disagree with us on these points, and that is their prerogative; there is certainly room for disagreement on these issues among good Christians. What I know is that by acting according to this policy, two things have happened for us: (1) Governments don’t like us, and (2) Governments know we aren’t involved with other governments. To us, that is worth more than a hundred senate briefings, ten pages in a religious freedom report, and whatever big money shows up from deacons at coffee shop. Our advice is this: If you want to work with governments, then don’t work with the underground church. If you want to work with the underground church, then don’t work with governments.
  2. Don’t take any shortcuts in ministry. Yes, fundraising can be hard and not much fun. But ministry finance is no different than personal finance: Easy money is not good money. Some money is too expensive to receive. If God gives you less donations, then learn to be faithful with less. Learn to live on less. Learn to spend less. As the first underground North Korean Christian I ever met taught me, ministry is not the use of money and freedom to solve problems in Jesus’ name. Ministry is moment-by-moment witness to the sufficiency of Christ in all things. God is always found in the mundane. If you sense that you need to be freed up from the mundane to focus on the glorious work God wants you to do, you need to repent of your theology of glory and exchange it for a theology of the Cross.
  3. Don’t have two masters. This is not the place (nor, I would contend, is the mission field the place) for debates about two kingdoms theology, or about the Christian’s role as citizen, or about religious freedom and the means that become legitimate to pursue that end, or about the comparative desirability of democracy, or about universal human rights, or about any of the things that are used as justifications by pastors for working overtly or covertly with governments. When you are a missionary pastor (or, I would contend, when you are a pastor anywhere), resolve instead to follow the Apostle Paul, who told the Corinthians, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The mission field is no place for hyphenated, adjectivized Christianity (e.g., “American missionary”, “human rights pastor”, “Persecuted church advocate”). Swear off all adjectives and hyphens and simply be Christian, full stop. Christ did not die for religious freedom but for freedom in Christ, which no government on earth can grant or take away (or even understand or experience, for that matter). On the mission field (and, I would contend, anywhere that Christians exist), we witness to the sufficiency of Christ. Christ is as sufficient in a democracy as he is in a gulag. Resolve to witness only to that. Interestingly, you will transform more governments that way than by following them down their own particular political rabbit holes.
  4. Don’t lie. Don’t claim to be a business man if you are really a pastor who is simply pretending to be a business man. You may think it is not possible to be a pastor in a closed country and that you thus must lie (or “have a cover”) in order to accomplish your work. Where in the New Testament did you learn this? The old admonition, “God’s work done God’s way never lacks for God’s supply”, is not only applicable to fundraising. It is applicable to every dimension of ministry. Our experience has been that pastors that are willing to lie once as a “cover” never stop at one lie. Of course, telling the truth is personally costly, which takes us to our final point:
  5. Be prepared to suffer. I always tell people that when Dr. Foley and I started VOM Korea, we never dreamed that governments around the world would find what we do so threatening. We thought, “We don’t do anything political, we don’t do human rights, we don’t do humanitarian aid, we don’t do government projects, we don’t do defection–all we do is discipleship and evangelism.” It turns out that governments find discipleship and evangelism to be the most threatening activities of all–and, paradoxically, the most political. We have found that authentic, whole life discipleship and evangelism in the fullness of the church’s Great Tradition actually threatens all of the governments of the world, not only those on the religious freedom watch lists of democratic countries.

And so we have found that the Apostle Paul was not exaggerating when he told Timothy, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Note that Paul did not say, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in a Communist country will be persecuted.” He said everyone who lives a godly life in Christ will be persecuted. When pastors say no to governments–any governments, for any reason–they can expect a backlash. The sooner we accept that that is part of the job description of even the average Christian, the fewer stories we will have to read in the future about the capture, punishment, and release of spy pastors.

But please note that when spy pastors repent, we should receive them back into the fold with open arms. Megan Brigg’s fine article on Kim Dong Chul ends well:

Kim Dong-chul says he now regrets his acts of espionage, although he’s trying to use the rest of his life wisely. “While thinking deeply about North Korea and the Republic of Korea, I’m contemplating what I live for and how to valuably use the life I’m living on borrowed time.”

It sounds like North Korea is not the only thing from which Kim Dong Chul has been freed.

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