On October 27, 2015, Internet news site The Intercept ran an investigative article entitled The Pentagon’s Missionary Spies: U.S. Military Uses Christian NGO as a front for North Korea Espionage. The article claimed that from 2004 until 2013 a secret Pentagon program used a “fledgling, faith-based” Colorado NGO to smuggle Bibles into North Korea via a secret compartment of a container of humanitarian clothing aid, in order to test the feasibility of subsequently sending military hardware under the nose of the North Korean government in the same manner.
The article was rapidly disseminated by a host of other news outlets (including Huffington Post, Slate, and Common Dreams). Not surprisingly, North Korea’s own state news agency, the Rodung Sinmun, ran a story that while not referring to The Intercept story specifically, clearly had it in its sights, saying,
American imperialists and their followers are trying to overturn our great socialist system from the inside. To make that happen, they are persistently trying to infiltrate our system using religion as disguise.
Chad O’Carroll and JH Ahn at NKNews each ran excellent stories quoting many of us in the wider NK work community to say what all of us across the length and breadth of the NK work community are saying; namely, The Intercept story makes absolutely no sense and reflects a kind of comic-book understanding of North Korea, the US intelligence community, and missionary work.
This is not to say that The Intercept made up the story. I accept at face value their claim that “more than a dozen current and former military and intelligence officials, humanitarian aid workers, missionaries, U.S. officials, and former HISG staffers” were interviewed for the article, and, while that seems like rather a lean number to interview to substantiate the claim they are making, what mainly troubles me is the sheer credulity of the assumptions made by the article.
For example, the article purports:
“We had nothing inside North Korea,” one former military official familiar with U.S. efforts in the country told me. “Zero.”
Anyone who has done any North Korea work for any length of time knows that that claim is patently ridiculous. American and South Korean espionage activity in and around North K0rea 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.
But here’s the thing: It never, ever, ever happens the way it is described in the article. Why? Because neither the Americans, the South Koreans, or the North Koreans are as ridiculous or foolish or obvious as the article assumes. For example, the article claims:
“We sent the bibles in as a test run,” a former senior Pentagon official told me. “They got through without the North Koreans discovering them.”
The Pentagon tasked Hiramine with gathering the intelligence it needed inside North Korea, and Hiramine would in turn utilize HISG’s access to the country to complete the assignments, according to two former military officials with knowledge of the effort. Hiramine, in his role as CEO of HISG, tapped Christian missionaries, aid workers, and Chinese smugglers to move equipment into and around North Korea — none of whom had any idea that they were part of a secret Pentagon operation.
They “got through”? That would imply that aid entering North Korea passes through some kind of NK government inspection post but is ultimately released to “missionaries, aid workers, and Chinese smugglers” who “move equipment into and around North Korea.”
But never in the entire history of North Korea have shipments from anyone “gotten through.” That’s the whole problem with aid to North Korea: You can’t get humanitarian aid “through” to North Korea. The omnipresent North Korean government simply receives it and distributes it. Most of the time they don’t even let you verify where it goes or how it was used (which is one of the hundred reasons why underground North Korean Christians and North Korean defectors recommend against any kind of humanitarian aid being sent to NK). Even the World Food Program doesn’t “get through” its aid into NK. And no American NGO in history has ever gotten its humanitarian aid “through” the NK government and distributed it to anybody on their own. It’s a preposterous claim that would be dismissed out of hand by anyone with any knowledge of North Korea.
The story would be dismissed out of hand except for one thing:
I think there’s good reason to believe that the information in it was planted into sources by the North Korean government.
As I first noted in this May 2014 post entitled North Korea Blames Its Human Rights Problems On Christian Missionaries, since early 2014 North Korea has been skillfully planting an international narrative that Christian missionaries are in fact government operatives who use their ministry work as a front for committing “acts of terror” designed to upend the North Korean government. Since they first took this message internationally they have kidnapped three South Korean missionaries and one Korean Canadian pastor, all of whom remain in custody along with several Chinese citizens involved in missionary work. Attempts to kidnap a fourth South Korean missionary on Chinese soil were foiled by Chinese PSB agents.
But the aggressive PR work is on. The campaign is underway. And Internet sites that are not known for being sympathetic to evangelical Christianity are eating it up and republishing stories without any additional fact checking at all. (And the reporting on the original stories, while not fabricated, is stunningly naïve, as I noted above.) Simply put, it is the biggest North Korea story–and the biggest mission story and the biggest persecuted Christian story–that no one is talking about: North Korea is framing missionaries, and the worst is yet to come.
Are some missionaries actually spies rather than missionaries? Of course. One would have to be as naïve as The Intercept to believe that’s not the case. But such counterfeit missionaries are not hard to spot. All you have to do is follow them around for a few days and ask, “Are they doing only evangelism and discipleship?” If the answer is yes, then they are not spies. If they are doing something more or something else, then if they are not spies, then they are at least definitely not smart. It’s a pretty simple criteria, and it’s probably the one that American, South Korean, and North Korean agents use when they spy on us.
Of course, the best “cover” we at VOM Korea have is no cover at all: We do evangelism and discipleship, period. We don’t do humanitarian aid, intelligence gathering, or defection assistance. Never have, never will. And the American, South Korean, and North Korean governments have no doubt figured that out about us by spying on us all these years.
But if North Korea was honest, they would admit that what scares them most is not spies acting like missionaries. It’s missionaries acting like missionaries. They are trying to neutralize us not because we are trying to destroy the North Korean government. (We aren’t, and neither are any NK underground believers we have ever met.) We are simply preaching Christ. But as Kim Il Sung once warned his descendants, “Only Christianity can destroy the root of our communism.” They may act outwardly like they are afraid of being overthrown by the US, but in truth they know that the US doesn’t want to see the balance of power change in East Asia.
So what worries NK (and always has) is the Bible. And that is why even while you read this they are trying to kidnap or kill those who preach it.
But as those who have heard the Bible preached know, that’s never been a very effective way of stopping Christians.