Why No Arab Spring For North Korea? (Or, You Can Take The North Korean Out Of North Korea, But…)

SUSA-KoreanBalloons bombarding North Korea with flyers from the outside world… Ordinary North Korean citizens boldly rebuking soldiers… Assassination attempts on North Korea’ unassailable leader… Is there a “North Korean Spring” in the offing?

PBS recently ran a documentary, Secret State of North Korea, in which they suggested just that. They contended that incidents of resistance to the North Korean regime were on the rise inside North Korea, likely as a result of greater exposure to foreign news sources and information through balloon launches, South Korean dramas on DVD, and shortwave radio broadcasts.

The idea of North Korea teetering on its hinges and about to fall is an appealing one, and PBS–and a parade of pundits and bloggers–make that case today.

They make the case today just as many others have since the beginning of the North Korean state.

Let’s be clear: Our ministry, Seoul USA, does a lot of balloons, radio, and DVDs, and has for many years. In fact, history buffs may enjoy this 1973 correspondence between Seoul USA’s predecessor organization and Voice of the Martyrs’ predecessor organization containing updates on just such North Korea projects–the same ones we do today, only from forty-one years ago.

And that is precisely the point: The opening paragraph of this blog post could have been written in 2004, 1994, 1984, or 1974–had we had blogs back then, that is. Balloon launching, radio broadcasting, North Korean citizens berating soldiers–these events are as old as the division between North and South Korea. What’s new is not North Koreans seeing these things. What’s new is us seeing North Koreans see these things.

Don’t, in other words, hold your breath for an Arab Spring to sweep across North Korea anytime soon.

It’s a naïve (and convenient and comforting) illusion propogated by the media (and, sadly, by some groups doing North Korean work)–the idea that North Koreans submit meekly and quietly to their leaders and live in Kim Il Sung-worshipping darkness blitheringly unaware of the outside world until one day a balloon carrying a Choco Pie and an anti-dictatorship message lands in front of them as they trudge home from the factory.

This is not to say that North Korean citizens are well-informed about the outside world. (They are not.) Nor is it to say that balloons, radios, and DVDs are ineffective. (If they were ineffective, it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to be writing this while today our balloon launch team is preparing for another launch and our radio team is preparing for another broadcast.)

It is to say, however, that North Korea’s indoctrination of its population is not that shallow, not that trifling, not that haphazard and the mind of the North Korean citizen not so blank that a balloon/radio/DVD blitz can bring the whole thing crashing down. It hasn’t been able to do so in more than forty years, anyway, and it’s not for lack of funding, skill, or effort.

The reason why is because North Koreans are expected to submit to their leaders, but they are required to do so in a vigorous, vocal, and engaged manner. It’s not enough just to submit quietly and meekly, in other words; you have to submit for the right reason, in the right way, and for the right goal. Researchers Heonik Kwon and Byong-Ho Chung quote Charles Armstrong in noting that North Korea places a “primacy on correct thought.” That is why North Koreans are trained to discuss politics from their youth right on up through their old age. In their must-read (and grossly under-read) North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics, Kwon and Chung write about the thoroughness of the training every North Korean citizen receives in this “correct thought”:

Films are widely used at schools and workplaces. In the regular study-cell meetings held in these places, films are frequently introduced as important study material (as are the leaders’ writings and important newspaper articles and editorials) for updating and consolidating citizens’ political literacy. After watching the films, people write reports about them and later discuss the written reports. The discussion groups are led by the leaders of the local party cells, who are also in charge of reporting to the higher party organization members’ commitment to studying (pp. 16-17).

A few weeks ago, Mrs. Foley and I accompanied our Underground University and Underground Technology students to the Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery (please watch the excellent video on the cemetery here). The cemetery not only contains the graves of more than one hundred missionaries who laid down their lives–and the lives of their children–for Koreans (and especially North Koreans); it also shares their story as well, a story diametrically opposite to the one North Koreans hear their whole lives. In the official North Korean story, American missionaries are foreign imperialists who initially appear quite nice but after sucking you in are likely to eat your guts out or carve the word “thief” on your forehead with acid.

As we reflected with the students after their visit, they reported feeling shock, dismay, anger, and betrayal that what they had learned in school in North Korea about American missionaries was wrong. It’s the same reaction we see when we take our North Korean students to the Korean War Memorial Museum and they learn that North Korea, not South Korea, initiated the Korean War.

But note something critically important:

These North Korean defectors who are feeling shock, dismay, anger, and betrayal didn’t just arrive in South Korea yesterday. They have lived in South Korea typically for between three and ten years.

I still recall standing inside the War Memorial Museum several years ago after completing the tour there with our North Korean defector students. Suddenly, one of them shot me a question–loudly, in exasperation, from the other side of the very large room–“Pastor Foley, you’re a pastor. You have to tell us the truth. Who really started the Korean War?”

These North Korean defectors hadn’t just received a balloon flyer or a Choco Pie or a DVD or a covert radio broadcast. They had lived in Seoul for years and were still uncertain as to what to believe. They had heard countless anti-communist lectures, watched untold hours of South Korean dramas and news broadcasts, and were living and breathing political freedom every day.

And still they remained captive in their minds to North Korea’s Juche ideology.

So as I always tell you, don’t believe everything you read about North Korea. It is comforting to believe that the country is about to collapse and that your donation to send one more Choco Pie across the border in a balloon will be the tipping point to bring it all down.

But it’s simply not that simple. Yes, radio broadcasts, balloons, and DVDs are important. But we use these tools not because we believe North Korea is about to collapse but because we believe it isn’t. We use these tools because we are not trying to collapse a country but rather because we are seeking to share the gospel. 

Balloons, radio, DVDs are effective tools for inaugurating that conversation, nothing more, nothing less. In fact, we know that in and of themselves these tools are incomplete. Freeing North Koreans from North Korea takes more than a Choco Pie. It takes years–of discipleship, of friendship, of patience, and of mutual discovery.

Consider the words of one North Korean defector on his own journey from North Korea to South Korea. His is an explicitly Christian testimony, but you’ll see that his faith journey and his general understanding of the world are inextricably linked. And as he says so well, for North Koreans the geographical journey is only the beginning:

 I wish I could tell you that after I finished crossing the [Tumen] river (and after God led me safely across all of Asia and finally to South Korea) that I never turned by back on God again. But that would not be true. In fact, for me—and for most North Koreans who come to know God—the process of finally coming to trust him and to give our lives to him takes a long time and a lot of re-education, not just miracles. Everything about my thinking was rooted in a materialistic view that denied spirit. As the view had controlled my idea for a long time in my subconscious, I could not throw away materialistic thinking in one or two days. It has taken me a long time to turn my back on the North Korean ideology. Underground University was a vital part of that process.

I could not easily forget the lessons from my schooling that religion makes people crazy like opium addicts. In fact, I only began attending church in South Korea after a long period of mental anguish as I tried to make sense of a world that was more than material.

I have been going to church for five years now. I regret wasting my time, wandering around and not knowing what to do and where to go for seven years. But I am grateful that God was willing to patiently call me for seven years after that night in the Tumen River.

At first I was like a child who was only able to eat vegetables but was trying to eat meat. It is very hard for people who have grown up Christian to understand how the world looks and feels to someone who has been schooled to believe only in what one can see. Fortunately there were people who could help, including the students and faculty of Underground University—one of the only places that works hard to understand and transform the North Korean mindset into faith in Christ, by the grace of God and by genuine knowledge of North Korean culture.

I am still growing in faith as a disciple of Christ, only depending on the word of God and carving it on my heart.


About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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2 Responses to Why No Arab Spring For North Korea? (Or, You Can Take The North Korean Out Of North Korea, But…)

  1. WOW!! This post is very insightful. Thank you for including the thoughts of a North Korean defector. I know it is hard for North Koreans to be transformed by the renewing of their mind after the constant indoctrination of the Juche system; his comments give me a better picture of that. I will continue to pray for these precious people. :>}

  2. Pingback: Weekly Roundup, 1/22 | The Fine Print

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