How Pastors Become Spies…and How to Stop It

How Pastors Become Spies…and How to Stop It

Korean American pastor and former North Korean prisoner Kim Dong Chul admitted in an interview published this week that he had been spying for South Korea and the United States. By all accounts he was not a spy merely masquerading as a pastor. He was a pastor who was actively engaged in Christian ministry to North Koreans who also became a spy.

How does this happen? Or, as many are still asking this week, does this happen, or is it simply a false confession? We are so accustomed to the macabre claims made about missionaries by governments like China and North Korea that we assume that all accusations of missionary spying must be false.

And, indeed, many such claims are false and are made for the sake of justifying draconian suppression of all non-state religious activity in the name of responsible national security.

But sometimes pastors do become spies, especially in the closed places of the earth and their borders where one typically finds only pastors and spies. I don’t know Kim Dong Chul or the particulars of his case, and at VOM Korea we have an ironclad, no exceptions policy to avoid all contact or connection with individuals or organizations who we know or suspect have a working relationship of any kind (covert or overt) with any government. But even so, as I have previously noted,

American and South Korean espionage activity in and around North Korea 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.

So how does it happen that a pastor becomes a spy? Sadly, government representatives are rarely forthcoming with their identities, motives, and goals when they first meet pastors. They often introduce themselves simply as Deacon X from ABC Church (and, in fact, they are a deacon at ABC Church, and a very good one). They might make a donation to the missionary’s ministry–a pretty large one, like a few thousand dollars, or a few such donations over a period of time. Eventually they meet the missionary personally over coffee in order to express interest in the missionary’s ministry and to learn more.

In other words, they begin by skillfully entrapping the missionary.

That doesn’t make the missionary a victim. Jesus commands us to be as wise as serpents, and it is beyond naive the way missionaries fall into such relationships without using proper discretion. They, like all of us, want shortcuts through the mundane things of life in order to free up time, energy, and attention to focus on what seems important to us: “the ministry”. (It is only later that we find that the mundane things are where the Lord does all of his ministry work.) Since it is easier to receive a large bank account transfer from Deacon X than it is to go around begging for donations, spending time with Deacon X at the coffee shop can become quite attractive to missionaries. Especially if Deacon X sounds like a person who really values your ministry but who just wants you to share a little information about what you know about what is going on in City X, where you have a discipleship base.

And so it begins. Each trip to the coffee shop draws the missionary further down the rabbit hole. Deacon X knows how to keep it all sounding theologically responsible and civically vital. And so after a few years, the missionary finds himself taking photos of ships at the behest of the CIA, as in the case of Kim Dong Chul.

Since this is how the process works, we have found over the years that the best way to stop it is simply to stay as far away from it as possible. For us, that looks like this:

  1. Don’t get involved with any governments at any time, either covertly or overtly. We don’t participate in government ministerials. We don’t supply information to government human rights reports. We don’t advise elected officials. And when deacons from ABC Church appear out of nowhere and start making good sized donations and asking questions about our ministry, we decline to meet at coffee shops–and we decline donations whenever we are uncertain or suspicious about their origin or motive. Many Christian organizations will disagree with us on these points, and that is their prerogative; there is certainly room for disagreement on these issues among good Christians. What I know is that by acting according to this policy, two things have happened for us: (1) Governments don’t like us, and (2) Governments know we aren’t involved with other governments. To us, that is worth more than a hundred senate briefings, ten pages in a religious freedom report, and whatever big money shows up from deacons at coffee shop. Our advice is this: If you want to work with governments, then don’t work with the underground church. If you want to work with the underground church, then don’t work with governments.
  2. Don’t take any shortcuts in ministry. Yes, fundraising can be hard and not much fun. But ministry finance is no different than personal finance: Easy money is not good money. Some money is too expensive to receive. If God gives you less donations, then learn to be faithful with less. Learn to live on less. Learn to spend less. As the first underground North Korean Christian I ever met taught me, ministry is not the use of money and freedom to solve problems in Jesus’ name. Ministry is moment-by-moment witness to the sufficiency of Christ in all things. God is always found in the mundane. If you sense that you need to be freed up from the mundane to focus on the glorious work God wants you to do, you need to repent of your theology of glory and exchange it for a theology of the Cross.
  3. Don’t have two masters. This is not the place (nor, I would contend, is the mission field the place) for debates about two kingdoms theology, or about the Christian’s role as citizen, or about religious freedom and the means that become legitimate to pursue that end, or about the comparative desirability of democracy, or about universal human rights, or about any of the things that are used as justifications by pastors for working overtly or covertly with governments. When you are a missionary pastor (or, I would contend, when you are a pastor anywhere), resolve instead to follow the Apostle Paul, who told the Corinthians, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The mission field is no place for hyphenated, adjectivized Christianity (e.g., “American missionary”, “human rights pastor”, “Persecuted church advocate”). Swear off all adjectives and hyphens and simply be Christian, full stop. Christ did not die for religious freedom but for freedom in Christ, which no government on earth can grant or take away (or even understand or experience, for that matter). On the mission field (and, I would contend, anywhere that Christians exist), we witness to the sufficiency of Christ. Christ is as sufficient in a democracy as he is in a gulag. Resolve to witness only to that. Interestingly, you will transform more governments that way than by following them down their own particular political rabbit holes.
  4. Don’t lie. Don’t claim to be a business man if you are really a pastor who is simply pretending to be a business man. You may think it is not possible to be a pastor in a closed country and that you thus must lie (or “have a cover”) in order to accomplish your work. Where in the New Testament did you learn this? The old admonition, “God’s work done God’s way never lacks for God’s supply”, is not only applicable to fundraising. It is applicable to every dimension of ministry. Our experience has been that pastors that are willing to lie once as a “cover” never stop at one lie. Of course, telling the truth is personally costly, which takes us to our final point:
  5. Be prepared to suffer. I always tell people that when Dr. Foley and I started VOM Korea, we never dreamed that governments around the world would find what we do so threatening. We thought, “We don’t do anything political, we don’t do human rights, we don’t do humanitarian aid, we don’t do government projects, we don’t do defection–all we do is discipleship and evangelism.” It turns out that governments find discipleship and evangelism to be the most threatening activities of all–and, paradoxically, the most political. We have found that authentic, whole life discipleship and evangelism in the fullness of the church’s Great Tradition actually threatens all of the governments of the world, not only those on the religious freedom watch lists of democratic countries.

And so we have found that the Apostle Paul was not exaggerating when he told Timothy, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Note that Paul did not say, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in a Communist country will be persecuted.” He said everyone who lives a godly life in Christ will be persecuted. When pastors say no to governments–any governments, for any reason–they can expect a backlash. The sooner we accept that that is part of the job description of even the average Christian, the fewer stories we will have to read in the future about the capture, punishment, and release of spy pastors.

But please note that when spy pastors repent, we should receive them back into the fold with open arms. Megan Brigg’s fine article on Kim Dong Chul ends well:

Kim Dong-chul says he now regrets his acts of espionage, although he’s trying to use the rest of his life wisely. “While thinking deeply about North Korea and the Republic of Korea, I’m contemplating what I live for and how to valuably use the life I’m living on borrowed time.”

It sounds like North Korea is not the only thing from which Kim Dong Chul has been freed.


  1. Judith McDonald

    Says August 11, 2019 at am 7:51

    I’m reading “Escape from Camp 14” by Blaine Harden and defector Shin Dong-hyuk. So far, I haven’t read references to Christians, but he and his family were all held in the most hostile, lowest-rung of the ladder camp. Awhile back, and in this article, you said you do not encourage anyone to attempt to escape. This young man was born in the camp and was treated and reacted like a starved, crazed animal. He actually snitched on his own mother and brother’s plan to escape. When they were both executed, he believed they deserved it. The book explains what happens to the families of those who do escape. They are considered accomplices and tortured and starved, made to confess their shortcomings, etc. I understand you want your ministry to be absolutely apolitical, but I do not understand why you wouldn’t do everything you can to get people OUT of North Korea!

    • admin

      Says August 13, 2019 at pm 2:48

      Hello Judith! I would be happy to address this issue together.

      One quick thing, though, is that it could be good to get a update about Shin Dong-Hyuk’s admissions of inaccuracy regarding his testimony.

      But, to get to the main question, the situation is challenging, and there are no easy answers. In the midst of the challenges, though, it is important to remember that escape creates even bigger problems than it solves. For example, as you may already know, North Korean defectors have the highest rate of death due to suicide in the world. Also, now there are more than somewhere between 10,000 – 15,000 orphans in Northeast China related to North Korean defectors who seek to escape their circumstances and come to South Korea. Also, as you noted, relatives are punished for the escape of family members, and it is not generally possible to help whole families escape.

      Helping people escape North Korea can create more issues such as these. This is why many defectors living in South Korea tell their relatives who are in China or North Korea to stay where they are, rather to escape.

      Please let me know if you have any further concerns, comments, or questions.

      Thank you,
      Missionary T.

  2. Ariel Lohberger

    Says August 15, 2019 at pm 1:00

    This is why I support this mission: this article is aligned with scripture, and bears testimony to their lives also being lived in accordance with scriptural teaching. It is true that all followers of Christ must be prepared to suffer. It is at the point of pain that many fall away from following Christ. Thank you for your faithfulness. God bless and keep your ministry fruitful.

    • admin

      Says August 16, 2019 at am 11:16

      Thank you for partnering together in the work of serving the Church in the midst of its sufferings, Ariel!

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