North Korea: Going low-tech to evade state surveillance

As the North Korean government implements its new anti-reactionary thought law, which promises even harsher punishments for anyone found accessing foreign content, a return to low-tech methods of information distribution is essential to protecting those who are distributing and receiving gospel outreach inside North Korea.

A listener tunes in to a Voice of the Martyrs Korea shortwave radio broadcast, one of five daily broadcasts the ministry does on shortwave and medium wave into North Korea each day.

Technology always leaves a trail, and often the more advanced the technology, the more obvious the trail. As North Koreans increasingly access information from the outside world on SD cards, USBs, cell phones, and computers, it actually becomes easier for the North Korean government to apprehend those who are accessing foreign content. That’s true not only of those who are watching Korean dramas and KPOP but also those who are accessing Christian content electronically.

The strategy of the North Korean government is not always to stop the spread of electronic devices but instead to let the devices themselves do the spying work.

Several years ago, software was installed on phones and computers which made non-state approved files un-playable or deleted them. But now, programs like ‘Trace Viewer’ record user activity and even take screenshots every few minutes that are then accessible to the authorities. USBs are automatically infected with government software that records every device they are plugged into and what files get uploaded or downloaded. It is a very efficient way to spy, and ordinary North Koreans have less options for identifying and getting rid of malware from their electronic devices than users in the rest of the world do.

International human rights organizations inadvertently aid the North Korean government’s surveillance efforts by relying increasingly on high tech methods for information transmission into North Korea.

We see outside groups focused on getting as many SD cards or USB devices as possible inside North Korea. This doesn’t mean SD cards and USBs are bad. Certainly they’re helpful, and we use a lot of them, too. But high tech devices should only ever be a supplement to low tech strategies, because generally speaking, the lower the tech, the more manpower it takes for the government to search and the harder it is for them to trace and apprehend the users.

This is why Voice of the Martyrs Korea continues to use technology that may at first appear to be outdated.

A North Korean defector announcer records the Bible for use on Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s daily radio broadcasts and electronic media.

People may think, “Who listens to shortwave radio anymore? The sound quality of an MP3 player is so much better.” But the reason why we do five shortwave and medium wave radio broadcasts into North Korea every day is because radios are a great example of a ‘non-networked device’—that is, a device that doesn’t transmit information about its use the way a computer or phone does. It’s also why we continue to use printed Bibles wherever possible. They can be made as small as many networked devices, and these days with the North Korean government emphasizing electronic surveillance, the use of printed materials is often easier to conceal.

Christians are especially well equipped to evade high tech surveillance because traditional methods of evangelism and discipleship don’t rely on physical materials at all.

Long before individual Christian believers had their own printed Bibles, they accessed scripture through memorization. And they shared it through discrete one-on-one conversations. For underground Christians in North Korea and around the world, scripture memorization and personal evangelism remain the most important ‘technology’ for the transmission of gospel content.

Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s strategy is always to use the lowest-tech strategy available and to convert information to memorization as quickly as possible.

Our most strategic technology is not SD cards or USBs, though we use those. Our most strategic technology is our North Korean underground church hymnal. Several years ago we worked with underground Christians to select and record hymns that contained a lot of good theology and were easy for North Koreans to sing. Most South Korean worship songs are not done in a musical style which North Koreans can learn easily, and they generally feature one or two simple lines sung over and over, without much doctrine. But hymns can carry a lot of doctrinal information, and when they are sung in the musical style North Koreans are accustomed to hearing, they can be easily learned by the people who tune into our daily radio broadcasts. The North Korean hymnal is also frequently requested by North Korean defector churches and individual North Korean defectors in South Korea.

Voice of the Martyrs Korea produced a North Korean underground church hymnal using North Korean style harmonies and instruments and songs designed to convey theology. The hymnal has become popular among North Korean defectors in South Korea as well.

Evidence of the success of low-tech methods of information transmission into North Korea can be seen through government efforts to restrict them. Balloon launches are the best example of low-tech information transmission, and they were the first technology to be criminalized. At that time, the South Korean government also said that in the future it might look into the question of whether radio broadcasts into North Korea should be restricted. The lower the tech, the greater the likelihood of a ban. This is one reason why we must use the widest variety of technologies possible—both low-tech and high-tech: Because restrictions on sharing the gospel in North Korea aren’t likely to go away anytime soon.

More information about Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s North Korea radio ministry and Bible distribution efforts is available at https://vomkorea.com/en/project/northkorea/.

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Voice of the Martyrs Korea receives certification of financial transparency

The Christian Council for Financial Transparency Korea (CCFK) renewed its certification of Voice of the Martyrs Korea this month.

“Voice of the Martyrs Korea received initial accreditation from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), CCFK’s parent organization in 2014,” said CCFK President Hwang Ho Chan. “Upon the formation in 2015 of a Korean affiliate of the ECFA, the CCFK, Voice of the Martyrs Korea has since then pursued and received its accreditation in Korea. That accreditation has been renewed continually by CCFK, including the present year.”

Officials from the Christian Council for Financial Transparency Korea (CCFK) confirmed Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s financial transparency by renewing its certification again this month. From L to R: Choi Soo Nam (General manager, CCFK), Hyun Sook Foley (Representative, VOMK), Eric Foley (CEO, VOMK), Lee Yoon (Vice-President, CCFK)

Dr. Foley and I have always maintained that financial accountability should be every ministry’s highest priority. Now more than ever, donors want to be certain that when they give a donation, the money will be used exactly as the donor intends and as efficiently as possible.

We sought accreditation with ECFA and CCFK as part of our overall commitment to meeting the highest international standards for financial accountability and transparency. Since the beginning of VOMK 20 years ago, we have felt that Christian organizations must do more than obey the local laws. We must obey the higher standard laid out in scripture.

In accordance with CCFK guidelines, Voice of the Martyrs Korea submits annually to a full financial audit and certification of financial statements by an independent auditor. We also post our annual audit on our website so that our donors and the general public can see exactly where money goes when it is donated to Voice of the Martyrs Korea. Our administrative costs area under 5%, in accordance with NGO best practices advocated by CCFK and other independent financial accountability agencies.

There is a growing trend toward donors holding ministries accountable for how their donations are spent. Voice of the Martyrs Korea welcomes that trend. We believe donors should always be able to call and check on a ministry before they make a gift, to know what they can expect in terms of receipts and reports on the projects they are considering funding. Dr Foley spends one day each week traveling throughout Korea to update Voice of the Martyrs Korea donors individually and in small groups on the progress of ministry campaigns and the ministry’s financial expenditures. To Dr. Foley and me, it doesn’t matter if a person gives us 1,000 KRW (approx. $1 USD) or 100,000,000 KRW (approx. $100). God will hold us accountable for all the funds he directs to us. We should keep donors updated on how their money was spent rather than just asking them for more money.

Dr. Foley and I hope that more churches and ministries consult with CCFK on how to be more financially transparent. We hear missionaries and ministries saying, “Oh, we can’t show any receipts or financial reports about how we spent donations because our work is secret.” But at Voice of the Martyrs Korea we have been working with underground Christians for 20 years, and we have always found a way to receipt and report on our expenses while keeping our field work confidential. Our experience is that if a ministry consults with groups like ECFA and CCFK, they can always find a way to receipt and report on expenses. What is required is simply to place a high priority on donor accountability. The truth is, many ministries don’t do more receipting and reporting simply because the public hasn’t yet demanded it. But that is changing. Donors are demanding greater accountability when they donate. Hopefully VOMK and CCFK can help other Christian ministries increase their financial transparency by sharing what we have learned.

For more information on Voice of the Martyrs’ financial accountability practices and to see its most recent audited financial statements, please visit https://vomkorea.com/about/financial-accountability/.

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COVID has created a “window of opportunity” to evangelize stranded NK foreign workers


More than 100,000 North Koreans working in China, Russia, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East have been unable to return home due to North Korea’s COVID lockdown. That has created a “window of opportunity” for evangelism which Voice of the Martyrs Korea is seeking to maximize.

File photo of NK workers in a foreign country. 

Perhaps many of us are accustomed to thinking that COVID-related lockdowns make evangelism difficult, but in the case of NK workers sent out to foreign countries by their government, it has made evangelizing them much easier because they are stuck in their current locations until the lockdown is lifted. In many cases they are undersupplied and quite naturally worried about their families and their own future.

VOMK’s estimate of 100,000 stranded North Korean foreign workers comes from our network of field workers as well as from our consultation with secular analysts who study and monitor North Korean foreign workers.

Reaching the workers requires a customized effort in each location. In some cases, electronic Bibles are the most useful tool. In other cases, printed Bibles draw the most interest. Other workers prefer Bible phone apps or links to online videos, like our Gospel of Mark video.

Voice of the Martyrs Korea uses Christian workers from a variety of backgrounds to reach NK workers. Most NK workers have been trained to be wary of contact with South Koreans, so in most cases local Christians can be more effective Bible distributors than South Korean missionaries. And local construction workers or neighbors or even customers can sometimes have access to workers that pastors and missionaries don’t have. There are sometimes even believers or people who are familiar with or especially open to the Bible among the North Korean workers themselves.

So far in 2021 Voice of the Martyrs Korea has distributed more than 4,500 electronic and print Bibles to NK workers, with plans to try to double that amount by year’s end. (We do not release a more detailed breakdown of distribution by country or Bible type to protect the safety of Bible recipients and our own field workers.)

Bibles awaiting distribution to NK workers in foreign countries by Voice of the Martyrs Korea field workers. The ministry uses a variety of Bible types including various digital formats and print.

In most cases, contact with the workers must be very brief and discrete, and follow-up discipleship is often not possible. But we regularly receives letters of thanks sent through our field workers.

The workers’ only exposure to Christianity in most cases is the Bible they receive. They don’t know any Christian “vocabulary”, so their thank-you letters often contain phrases drawn from their daily North Korean life and experience. One NK worker wrote that we should “put Jesus on a pedestal”, which is an expression that is generally reserved only for the Kim family. Similarly, another worker wrote that they should have “single-hearted filial piety and allegiance” to God—a phrase usually used only for North Koreans’ devotion to the Kims. Another worker was worried that writing God’s name could be a security risk, so they referred to God simply as “that person”.

A sample of the thank-you letters Voice of the Martyrs Korea has received this summertime follows: 

A collage of thank-you letters received this summer from NK workers stranded in foreign countries who received Bibles through Voice of the Martyrs Korea distributions


1. John 6:26-28…The words of Jesus told us that one should not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life. That food is given to us. God gave Jesus authority, so that we should put him on a pedestal and try to live as the Words of Jesus say.

2. Our hearts for the Father who cares for us is more precious than ‘single-hearted filial piety and allegiance’. We will follow you with single-minded devotion. Where else is the Father like you in the world? Even after looking for other fathers, you are the only Father.

3. Until now, we have thought that we have lived without any regret on our conscience. This time, as we listened to the audio Bible, we thought about it for some days. After listening and listening… we had only thought the monkeys became humans and the world was made in that regard. Even our grandparents told us that way. In the strange land, <country name omitted>, we have received amazing glory and affection from you. We had never seen outside world but the Father came to people like us. We were truly blind before, but the audio Bible awakened and opened our eyes and thoughts. We are giving thanks to you who have sent precious gifts and the audio Bible. We will keep it and treasure it, and live as we hear.

4. In His bosom, we will be reborn like a sunflower to trust in you and follow you. We will be your pure daughter, the Father. Our hearts are becoming peaceful while working as listening to your warm voice. It is like our parents whispering and giving advice to us.

More information about Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s North Korea ministry is available at https://vomkorea.com/en/project/northkorea/.


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