Among our core convictions at Seoul USA are these:
- North Korean Christians have the primary responsibility to proclaim the gospel to North Koreans;
- North Korean Christians have the best knowledge and insights on how to accomplish this work;
- The North Korean church is not a subset of the South Korean church, nor is it an incapacitated entity in need of foreign missionaries to “lead the charge” into North Korea.
- The North Korean church has maintained a witness inside North Korea as well as wherever North Koreans are found, since the inception of the North Korean state;
- Sadly, almost no one seems to listen to the North Korean church when it comes to North Korea ministry.
When North Koreans encounter Christians in China and Russia and come to learn about Christ, they often realize that the wordless melodies they were taught as children, and the bedtime stories they received from grandmothers and grandfathers, were actually Christian hymns and stories from the Bible disguised so as to avoid detection by their NK minders. And so they reclaim their family’s faith and join with brothers and sisters in Christ whom they have not yet met who are still inside of North Korea, and they coordinate together to witness to the saving grace of Jesus Christ wherever North Koreans are found.
Although many people in the rest of the world assume that all North Koreans have the goal of escaping from North Korea and that all North Koreans’ problems are solved once they arrive in South Korea, the reality is very different. Many NK defectors living in South Korea tell their family members who remain inside of NK, “Stay there. Things are no better for us here.”
That is because as a population group, North Korean defectors living in South Korea have the highest rate of suicide of any population group in the world—16.3% compared to 5.2% among South Koreans, already vying with Japan for the highest rate of suicide in the world. 8.8% of North Korean defector middle school and high school students are dropping out, compared to 1.4% of South Koreans. The crime rate for NK defectors is twice the national average. Nearly 20% of NK defectors fail to stay in a job for more than a month. That’s made more understandable by the reality that a typical North Korean defector can only understand about 60 percent of what a typical South Korean person says.
The result? 70% of NK defectors want to leave South Korea for the United States, Canada and Australia instead of staying here. And 33% of NK defectors wish they could go back to North Korea rather than continuing life in the south.
So even though South Korea is democractic and economically one of the most prosperous and Christian countries on earth (eleven of the twelve largest churches in the world are in Seoul, for example), North Koreans face a crippling prejudice in South Korea. They continue to struggle with the mental and physical ravages of the life they endured inside of NK. North Korean defectors who, having come so far, find that even worldly freedom can’t bring happiness.
For their part, South Korean Christians are for the most part baffled by the idea of submitting to North Korean leadership of mission to North Korea. South Korean churches, for example, can’t wait to evangelize North Korea when it “opens,” and seem inclined to believe that the strategy is theirs to set, rather than seeing themselves as in a supporting role of an existing North Korean church. They would hasten to add that they are training North Koreans for the work–using South Korean evangelism and church planting strategies, of course.
But when it comes to serving the Lord, NK Christians inside of North Korea and NK Christians on the outside can and do work together to proclaim the gospel to their North Korean brothers and sisters. And we can learn an awful lot by letting them lead the way.
Take the unique North Korean defector gospel proclamation strategy of balloon launching, for example.
In the 1980s, the South Korean government launched balloons containing propaganda flyers into NK. Each 40 foot tall balloon could carry thousands of flyers. But when the South Korean government sought to pacify the North during the so-called Sunshine Policy years, they asked the North Korean government, “What can we do to improve relations?” “Stop doing the shortwave radio broadcasts,” the NK government said, “And stop sending the balloon flyers!”
So the South Korean government mothballed the radio equipment and the balloons.
But in the 1990’s, when the growing North Korean Christian defector community begin to seek God on how to partner with their brothers and sisters still inside NK to spread the Gospel, they quickly realized what they needed to do: broadcast Christian messages in the NK dialect every day using shortwave radio, and send balloon flyers—as many as possible—into the North, and do all this as cheaply as possible. Because they had, you know, no money.
So with the support of Seoul USA and Voice of the Martyrs they studied the technology used by the South Korean government and adapted it. They created new balloons out of the plastic used by farmers to cover their fields. They wrote and printed their own flyers. And they launch those flyers—and, now, Bibles—back over the border into North Korea.
Who proclaims the gospel in North Korea? By our reckoning, no one knows how to proclaim it better, more creatively, or more effectively than North Korean Christians themselves.