North Koreans working abroad give thanks for “scary book”

Voice of the Martyrs Korea, an NGO which serves persecuted Christians worldwide, released letters it received this week from North Koreans working abroad who received audio Bibles through the NGO’s distribution efforts.

“The workers wrote that they previously regarded the Bible as ‘the most terrifying thing’, a ‘scary book’, and even an ‘evil thing’,” says Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Dr Hyun Sook Foley. “But having listened to it for themselves, they’re now expressing heartfelt thanks and crediting it with freeing them from ‘mental slavery’ and ‘foolishness’.”

Representative Foley says that Voice of the Martyrs Korea supplies audio and printed North Korean dialect Bibles to North Koreans inside North Korea, as well as to North Korean laborers working abroad and North Korean sex trafficked women in China.

“The North Korean government’s COVID lockdown has prevented many North Korean workers from returning home,” says Representative Foley. “But the longer stays have given North Korean workers opportunities more time to access materials not available to them at home.”

Representative Foley quoted from the letter of one North Korean worker who wrote, “If I were in Chosun, I would not see it because the Bible of Christianity is the most terrifying thing. In (Location removed), I am seeing and hearing things more than I was in NK. So, I am open to this scary book.”

According to Representative Foley, the Bibles are individually distributed directly to recipients, often as part of small care packages containing other items like masks, medicines, and hygiene items. She says that the distribution is done by underground Christians from North Korea and the other countries where Voice of the Martyrs Korea reaches North Korean citizens.

Representative Foley says distributing the audio Bibles to to workers is dangerous work. “One worker wrote: ‘When I first received this thing called the Bible through (audio player), I was very terrified and suffered. I thought I finally was caught with evil things. I even thought to report this person who delivered it to me to the authorities.’”

But Representative Foley says that North Korean workers almost always respond with thankfulness after listening to the audio Bible. “One worker wrote to us, ‘If I do not know who God is in my life, I might miserably end up my life as a mental slave.’ Another wrote, ‘In (a city in North Korea), I visited a fortune teller to ask for my future. And I prayed to a ghost if I had wishes. As receiving the Bible for the first time, many people in Chosun are foolish and so am I. Now, I am truly praying. I truly believe that my fate and future are held by God.”

Representative Foley says that the letters were written in May and June and received by Voice of the Martyrs Korea this week. The text of the letters follows:

  1. In this factory, we have (number removed) women. Therefore, we have lots of fights and many of us are patients. And we are locked up to work. We sleep and then we work again. It seems like we become slaves. If we did not read and hear the Words of God every day through (audio Bibles) that we had received from (name removed), we may end up dying of disease or become mentally ill. We are in pain, but we are not really in pain because God is with us. God knows my pain and sufferings and we now have faith that God is with those who are in sorrow. For now, it is not pain every day but with prayer, through faith, I was reborn. Thank you. – Anonymously from Chosun
  1. Greetings. When I first received this thing called the Bible through (audio player), I was very terrified and suffered. I thought I finally was caught with evil things. I even thought to report this person who delivered it to me to the authorities. But now, I am very ashamed as reflecting the fact that I had foolish thoughts before. If I do not know who God is in my life, I might miserably end up my life as a mental slave. I am not worried about it anymore. If I would die here, am I not going to the place called heaven because of the faith? I only have this mind that I want my beloved families and friends go to heaven, not hell, so that I need to share it with my people around me. I am giving thanks to God for letting me become who I am now. From (City removed), Chosun.
  1. If I were in Chosun, I would not see it because the Bible of Christianity is the most terrifying thing. In (Location removed), I am seeing, and hearing things more than I was in NK. So, I am open to this scary book. Especially, the part of love in the book of 1 Corinthians, it is full of grace. My friend is more serious than I am. My friend rejected this in the first place, but now falling into it deeper than I am. I am so happy that I came to know God. From Chosun.
  1. Hello, nice to meet you. I do not know what to write. In (Location removed), I visited a fortune teller to ask for my future. And I prayed to a ghost if I had wishes. As receiving the Bible for the first time, many people in Chosun are foolish and so am I. Now, I am truly praying. I truly believe that my fate and future are held by God. 2022.5.20 From (Location removed)

According to Representative Foley, the long daily work hours and tight security of North Korean worker groups requires Voice of the Martyrs Korea to rely only on the power of God’s word rather than the possibility of building personal relationships with the recipients. She says it is the strategy missionaries used in the earliest days of the Korean church, beginning with pioneering missionary John Ross.

“Missionary Ross believed that people met Jesus directly through reading or hearing a vernacular language Bible rather than through building a relationship with a missionary,” says Representative Foley. “The North Korean workers who are receiving these audio Bibles are being discipled only by the Holy Spirit guiding their Bible reading and listening. I think Missionary Ross would be delighted by that.”

Representative Foley says that for the safety of its workers and the Bible recipients, Voice of the Martyrs Korea no longer releases the specific quantity of Bibles distributed each year, or the media or methods by which they are distributed. “Generally we distribute 40,000 to 50,000 North Korean dialect Bibles a year in print and electronic formats to North Korean citizens outside of South Korea,” she says. She notes that the Bible is also read daily on Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s five shortwave and AM radio broadcasts.

Individuals or churches interested in supporting Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s North Korea ministry can make a donation via website or wire transfer to:

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What I hope for from South Korea’s new president

As a “non-state actor” (more on this term in a moment) who faced criminal charges during the Moon administration for my North Korea-related work, I was asked shortly after the May 10 election of Yoon Suk Yeol whether I was now expecting better days.

President Yoon Suk Yeol shaking hands with President Moon Jae In at President Yoon’s Inauguration Ceremony on May 10, 2022. This photo was taken by Yang Dong Wook of DEMA (Defense Media Agency)

Another NK-related group had given their emphatic affirmative answer at that time, launching 1 million leaflets to North Korea bearing president-elect Yoon’s face.

But as the CEO of an NGO whose offices were blockaded by police under a prior conservative administration, I remain skeptical. After two decades as a North Korea-related non-state actor based in South Korea, it has been my experience that a change in administration may change which non-state actors are favored, but it has not yet resulted in greater tolerance of North Korea-related non-state action overall.

Police surround the VOM Korea office in Mapo in 2015.

The problem is not uniquely Korean. Section 6402 of the US Code on Foreign Relations and Intercourse defines a non-state actor as “a nonsovereign entity that— (A) exercises significant political power and territorial control; (B) is outside the control of a sovereign government; and (C) often employs violence in pursuit of its objectives.” Even the Oxford Dictionary raises states’ eyebrows, defining a non-state actor as “an individual or organization that has significant political influence but is not allied to any particular country or state.” Geun Lee and Kadir Ayhan (the latter an appointee to President Yoon’s National Unity Committee) aim for a more neutral characterization of non-state actors as individuals and informal and formal entities who are “relevant to international relations and operate at the international level (including transnational)” but who are “not representatives of states” (p. 58).

Defining non-state actors in relation to states works when the definition of “state” is itself stable. But as the Hague Center for Strategic Studies notes, “The nature and extent of state authority and the ways in which a state exerts its authority have dramatically changed. While the state’s core task used to be to ensure security and protection for its citizens, nowadays the state provides social security, healthcare, transportation, education, and many more services well beyond enforcement of the law.” (p. 142)

In South Korea, the state’s “core task” related to North Korea is reshaped by each incoming administration. If North Korea is the state’s “main enemy”, protection against the perceived North Korea threat becomes a core task. If the state envisions “a permanent and peaceful Korean peninsula peace regime”, as in the Panmunjom Declaration, then protection against perceived threats to that peace regime becomes paramount.

However the core task is construed, South Korean administrations have been ironclad in their agreement that no North Korea-related actors may operate outside of state purview. The logic is: If anything moves from South to North, the North treats it as a direct action of the South Korean state. All activity by North Korea-related non-state actors is considered provisional and may be curtailed by the state at any time, as according to national security concerns, or policy concerns portrayed as national security concerns. The idea of a North Korea-related non-state actor is thus rendered dangerous or meaningless.

A non-state actor as defined by Section 6402 of the US Code on Foreign Relations and Intercourse.

North Korea-related non-state actors based in South Korea have had four options in response. First, breathe a sigh of relief when an administration is elected which regards the non-state actor’s work as compatible with the administration’s policy. Second, when it’s not, lay low and hope for better days. Third, seek the patronage of partners (e.g., other states, funding sources, media) strong enough to at least give the new administration pause about curtailing the work. Fourth, lawyer up. Most North Korea-related non-state actors move pragmatically between all four with relatively little friction.

What I hope for from the incoming administration is more than the predictable reshuffling of the non-state actor deck. I hope instead for a new hands-off attitude toward the deck overall.

It is not a small hope. What I am seeking is the recognition by the South Korean government of a category of North Korea-related non-state action which it recognizes is outside of its purview to regulate or restrict.  I am not seeking the creation of a special license or exception for which qualified NGOs may apply. I am seeking the government’s recognition of something which belongs to all of us by right.

That final phrase sounds like a rhetorical flourish, but it is in fact a precise term with solid international provenance. Human rights advocate Andrew Clapham recounts how someone once responded to the request for a definition of the term “non-state actor” by saying that it meant simply “all of us”.

“All of us” proves to be a superior definition to the others mentioned so far because it stays the same regardless of how states (re)configure themselves or their policy and security agendas. Article 1 of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 53/144, Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted Mar 8, 1999, says, “Everyone”—that is, all of us—”has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.”

That last phrase is important. I am entitled to engage in North Korea-related non-state work in South Korea not only on the basis of my own human rights, but also on the basis of my striving for the protection and realization of the human rights of North Koreans. “All of us”, in other words, have the right and responsibility to realize the human rights of North Korean people and to act in accordance with those rights, whether such actions are in accord with a given administration’s policies or not. It is not our status as South Korean citizens or NGOs in good standing which gives us this right, but rather our inalienable status as non-state actors, which is to say, as human beings acting individually and in association with others, as according to the UN Declaration.  

Likewise, North Koreans, as human beings acting individually and not as an extension of the North Korean government, possess an inalienable right to connect with “all of us” as we jointly realize our human rights. Article 5 of the Declaration says, “For the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, at the national and international levels: (a) To meet or assemble peacefully; (b) To form, join and participate in non-governmental organizations, associations or groups; (c) To communicate with non-governmental or intergovernmental organizations.”

Although the UN human rights document corpus recognizes that states are primarily responsible for ensuring the enjoyment of human rights, it nowhere accords them the role of defining, interpreting, granting, or regulating them. To the contrary, it is these very things that the documents demand that states refrain from doing. States may engage in negotiations with other states in ways that may (and inevitably will) impact human rights. But they may not restrict or restrain the exercise of the human rights of their citizens or the citizens of other states in the process of achieving their policy designs. One can’t, for example, foster a “peace regime” by suspending for even a single citizen, even temporarily, rights recognized as inalienable.

Note that more is asserted by the UN Human Rights agreements than that governments make provision for sanctions exemptions for humanitarian aid. Human rights define the “floor” of interaction between “all of us” humans with which states may not tamper. That means when I talk to a North Korean person, the burden of proof is not on me to establish that that contact is not an act of espionage. The burden of proof is on the state to establish that it is.

My comments here are admittedly and intentionally restricted to a very specific type of activity. They do not cover, e.g., NGOs seeking to undertake vaccination projects with the NK government, nor educators seeking to contract with the NK government in order to teach there, because states do not possess human rights. Engaging with, by, or through states is by definition a means to an end, entailing questions beyond the direct and immediate human rights guarantees which accrue to us inalienably as individuals in association with other individuals, nationally and internationally. Thus, my comments here cover only non-state actors from South Korea interacting directly with non-state actors in North Korea in the mutual enjoyment of our human rights. These are rights that are not granted by states and thus may not be curtailed by them absent the state’s proof that something specifically compromising state security is afoot. That standard of proof, according to the UN Human Rights document corpus, is real and not a matter of generalities, suspicions, or accusations.

One could ask, “Yes, but does such a narrowly delimited right amount to much? Is there not more to be gained through state actors acting in policy alignment with suitable NGOs dutifully in tow?” The most important response is: It doesn’t matter. The enjoyment of human rights is not the means to any end. It is simply the predicate of our humanity.

On the other hand, imagine if a change in presidential administration left untouched the human interactions between NKs and SKs as they realize their inalienable human rights, even if only for “all of us” in South Korea. If the South Korean government refused to interfere with humans acting outside of state strictures north and south in the enjoyment of their universal rights, even if only by phone, Internet, or, yes, even balloon, would the impact on North-South relations be insignificant?

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Four Protestant churches are currently experiencing harassment by officials in areas now under Russian control, Voice of the Martyrs Korea has confirmed. The organization is also investigating reports of two pastors from the region currently being held without charge in unknown locations.

“Three churches in the Donetsk Region–Central Baptist Church and the Church of Christ the Saviour in Mariupol, and a church in Manhush—as well as a church in Vasilievka in the Zaporozhye region have recently been visited by officials or soldiers who conducted searches, confiscated equipment, demanded documents, and in one case even forcibly evacuated church members from their building,” says Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Dr Hyun Sook Foley.

Voice of the Martyrs Korea operates “Голос Мучеников – Корея”, a Russian language edition of its popular Facebook page on Christian persecution. Representative Foley says the organization also maintains private channels of communication with Christians and churches who are currently in areas of armed conflict, including those in the Donetsk and Zaporozhye regions.

Representative Foley says that church leaders in the region are asking for prayer.

“Back in March, Central Baptist Church in Mariupol buried two martyred church members who were part of a group of five whose van was hit by a grenade as they were doing deliveries and caring for 200 people living in the church basement as the city came under attack,” said Representative Foley. “Now the city is under Russian control. The church building itself was destroyed. Only the basement remains. On Sunday June 12, the remaining church members, less than a hundred, were gathered together for worship. Armed men came with threats and demanded the church’s registration documents. Unfortunately, the armed men were given the original documents, which they took with them.”

Representative Foley says Voice of the Martyrs Korea also received a report that on June 15 or 16, officials came to a minister of the Church of Christ the Saviour in Mariupol and asked to see the church’s registration. “The minister told the officials that the leader of the church had the documentation but was not presently in the city,” says Representative Foley. “The officials then directed him to visit their office regarding the church registration. He visited, and fortunately at this point the officials have told him they have no further questions.”

Christ the Saviour Church in Mariupol, one of four churches in regions newly under Russian control which have recently been experiencing harassment from authorities.

Representative Foley says the outcome was more severe in the village of Manhush, 30 km away from Mariupol. “Voice of the Martyrs Korea received reports that on June 15 or 16, the Russian military drove the believers out of their prayer house and rehabilitation center building,” Representative Foley says.

A minister from the church in Vasilievka similarly reported a visit from authorities on June 15-16, according to Voice of the Martyrs Korea. Representative Foley shared the minister’s report: “A few FSB officers came to the prayer house, registered everyone, said that they were closing the church and there would be no further meetings. Then officers went to the presbyter’s house, carried out a search, took away laptops and phones for checking. The official said that this was not all. We need God’s support and protection of our family members and the church.”

Representative Foley says that Voice of the Martyrs Korea is also investigating reports of two church leaders from the region who have been arrested and are currently being held without charge in secret locations by authorities. “The Defense Headquarters of the Zaporizhia Territory is reporting that Nikolai Zholovan, a Baptist pastor in Vasilyevka, was abducted by authorities on June 18. Also on June 18, Valentin Zhuravlev, pastor of the Melitopol Source of Life Church who is also a local veterinarian, was reportedly taken away by armed Russian soldiers while he was participating in a non-political interfaith prayer event in the city square, according to eyewitnesses,” says Representative Foley.

Representative Foley says that churches in these regions continue to operate despite the difficult conditions. “Believers have told us that they are trying to restore their church buildings to usable condition, but it is difficult due to the lack of building materials, electricity, and outside communication,” says Representative Foley. “One church leader told us that the occupying authorities don’t permit humanitarian aid from Ukraine, America, or Europe to enter into Mariupol. But he said that Russian Evangelical Christians are now helping their fellow believers in the city.”

According to Representative Foley, not all churches in the region are being harassed. “One church leader told us that nobody is bothering them at all. They are able to do their worship services freely and are working to help restore the damaged buildings of other churches.”

Representative Foley says, “A church leader speculated to us that the occupation authorities may be focusing on churches that have Ukrainian registration. They may be leaving alone the churches that typically don’t register with governments, like unregistered Baptist churches. Leaders tell us that Ukrainian church registration is simply treated as illegitimate.”

Representative Foley says that one regional church overseer told Voice of the Martyrs Korea that he has advised ministers in the region not to provide the original copies of registration documents if they are demanded by authorities. “Instead, he says churches should make copies of the registration that are certified with the church seal and signed by the minister, and to provide these to authorities upon request. Otherwise, authorities could simply keep the original documents and claim the church is not properly registered,” says Representative Foley.

Representative Foley says that dealing with issues of registration is nothing new for churches in the region. “Since 2014, when so-called People’s Republics were declared in Donetsk and Luhansk, Protestant churches have been required to register with authorities, and to produce copies of their registration upon request,” says Representative Foley. “One church leader told us that worship services are held only where and when officials tolerate them. The leader told us, ‘[Officials] present everything Protestant as American-planted, and only the ROC MP [Russian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate] has the right to operate’.”

Representative Foley says that Voice of the Martyrs Korea is providing emergency assistance to local church congregations and individual Christians who are continuing to engage in faithful witness during the present Russia/Ukraine conflict. “Every time the front line of the war moves, we Christians should pray for the churches and individual Christians that are now behind the line,” says Representative Foley. “Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s calling is to help support the tiny churches and Christians that are faithfully witnessing to the priority of the kingdom of God above all earthly kingdoms, despite the likelihood that it may cost them their lives.”

Donations can be made to the Ukraine Emergency Fund at or via electronic transfer to:

국민은행 (KB Bank) 463501-01-243303

예금주 (Account Holder): (사)순교자의소리

Please include the phrase “Ukraine” with the donation.

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