The Ideal North Korean Missionary: A Tough Old Bird

Our post this week is a surprise guest post by our daughter, Margaret. It’s not because I’m too busy to write or because I’m on vacation that I’m having her guest post. It’s because what she wrote here is better than anything I wrote this week. Frankly, it’s the best explanation I’ve read about our Underground University school and our overall philosophy and methodology of mission. Marg has surpassed me in the ability to write reports, and she often sees things I don’t. This, to me, is a welcome development. Have at it, Marg.


Think for a moment about the ideal evangelist to North Korea.

The image that comes to most minds is a Korean-American or South Korean with a passion for North Korea and a background in the American or South Korean church. Someone who bravely crosses the border, bringing with them the gospel or—at the very least—a message: God loves you.

The North Korean government is all too pleased to allow these “ideal evangelists” access to NK. In fact, according to the testimonies of North Korean defectors, the government even stocks cities that are open to foreign tourism with North Koreans trained to take advantage of missionaries like this. They even run fake churches through which they pull in funds for persecuting real Christians. Kim Il Sung himself even spoke of this type of missionary assistance when he said,

Some people ask me if I was much influenced by Christianity while I grew up. I was not affected by religion, but I received a great deal of humanitarian assistance from Christians, and in return I had an ideological influence on them.

North Korea has woven a thick and complex web to prevent outsiders from understanding its inner-most machinations. Our “ideal” evangelist is little more a fly caught in this web, unable to distinguish his or her way about the system. Perhaps the ideal evangelist to North Korea is not a well-intentioned foreigner but a North Korean.

Only a North Korean understands the lay of the web (that’s the reason they’re still alive). North Koreans not only understand how to navigate the twisted strings of North Korea but understand how to navigate undetected. In the words of Christ, they know how to be “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

This much is intuitive. But people often make the mistake of assuming the ideal North Korean evangelist to be young. Young North Koreans, after all, have more energy and, because their minds are still malleable, they can quickly “throw off” the coat of Juche (North Korea’s religion) and “put on” the coat of Christianity… or so we think.

In reality, younger North Koreans have an easier time “throwing off” the coat of Juche but struggle to “put on” the coat of Christianity. After all, they have their entire lives ahead of them and must care for their families. What practical help can Christianity possibly give them? No, older North Korean are much more amenable to the gospel. While they do struggle to abandon the Juche ideology and are tempted to seek their own prosperity (just like everyone else), older North Koreans have a sense that their life has already been used and find purpose in a God who has plans for them yet.

One of the most interesting things about North Korean society is that there is an implicit respect for age. Older ideas, places, and people are all revered by North Koreans (unless they conflict with the North Korean ideology, of course). Older North Koreans have a special place in the lives of their younger counterparts. This is especially true when it comes to the North Koreans who have spilled out into other countries such as China, Thailand, Russia, and South Korea because North Koreans in these areas have often had to leave their families behind. When these North Koreans look at our students, their hearts often melt because they are reminded of their mothers.

During a mission trip, one sex-trafficked North Korean woman told a VOMK staff member they always look forward to the times when VOMK comes because we always bring their “mothers.” Several other ministries have reached out to this woman, but she (and several other women) have expressed that VOMK is their favorite visitor simply because we bring their “mothers”—older North Korean women. One sex-trafficked woman had a sister in the hospital but still came to the VOMK training event. Another had been severely beaten by her husband the week before (to the point when her clavicle had split in two), yet chose time with her “mothers” over a trip to the hospital.

A VOMK staff member says this: “The NK ladies miss their mothers so much that when they are hugged by our students, their souls melt in God’s comfort. It’s funny to say, but they prefer older students.”

Many people look down on our UU students. They’re old. They’re struggling to understand Christianity. They still believe some of the lies that the North Korean government has taught them. But it’s through their very weakness that God imbues them with strength—few people can worm their ways into a heart like our UU students.

This is what makes UU so important.

Through UU, students are not only able to do mission trips—they’re able to learn more deeply about the God they share with everyone they meet. Our UU students aren’t just older North Korean men and women. They’re men and women who are attending church regularly and directing other North Koreans to do the same. They’re men and women who are already in positions of leadership—sometimes in their church, sometimes in their families, and sometimes in their spheres of influence—who are already sharing God with everyone around them. UU exists simply to help these students better understand the God to whom they are already introducing people.

Our staff regularly meet with students (even traveling long distances to visit them in their homes) and answer questions they have about Christianity and the Christian life. Students ask questions about everything from what the Bible says about drinking to the reason why God allowed their family to be sent back to North Korea. Staff don’t simply answer questions, however. They encourage students to discover the answers themselves through ministry.

Every student is involved in some VOMK ministry during their studies in UU. In addition to going on mission trips, some students oversee and encourage students from UT (a school for North Koreans who want to learn the rudiments of the Christian faith) or help launch balloons into North Korea.

Perhaps the ideal missionary to North Korea isn’t a young South Korean seminary graduate. Perhaps it’s the elderly North Korean woman who desperately read their Bible every day despite understanding little of it and who continue to direct people toward a God she doesn’t completely understand… yet.

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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1 Response to The Ideal North Korean Missionary: A Tough Old Bird

  1. tseongyosa says:

    Don’t we all!

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