NORTH KOREA: AS STATE SURVEILLANCE GOES HIGH-TECH, MINISTRY TURNS TO LOW-TECH
Voice of the Martyrs Korea CEO Pastor Eric Foley and Board Chair Dr. Hyun Sook Foley prepare Bibles for launch via balloon in this 2015 file footage.
Voice of the Martyrs Korea sent a total of 24,055 Bibles to North Korea in 2021, in addition to airing daily Bible recordings on its 5 shortwave and medium wave broadcasts into North Korea.
According to Voice of the Martyrs CEO the Rev. Dr. Eric Foley, the number includes mass distributions and individual hand-to-hand distributions in both print and electronic formats. Foley says the ministry does not provide breakdowns by Bible format or distribution method or location in order to protect the safety and security of recipients and couriers, as well as to keep its methods and technology private.
Foley says that mass numbers were down for the ministry this year compared to previous years, but that individual hand-to-hand distributions had more than doubled. “On the one hand, the efforts of South Korean authorities to halt all balloon launches, including our Bible launches, decreased mass distribution. On the other hand, demand for Bibles from individual North Koreans was higher than in any prior year.” Foley attributes the increased interest in the Bible by North Koreans to fear and uncertainty arising from concerns about the Coronavirus pandemic. “Regardless of culture, thoughts turn to God anytime life is threatened and the future appears bleak,” says Foley. “North Koreans, like people everywhere, turned to the Bible for hope in 2021, and they found it there.”
Foley noted that government balloon launch bans and Coronavirus travel restrictions had less of an impact on the ministry’s Bible distribution efforts than people might think. “Voice of the Martyrs Korea is not a mission agency producing Bibles in South Korea and then trying to figure out some way to sneak them into North Korea,” says Foley. “We are a multinational network of Christians, including North Korean Christians, using a wide variety of technologies and resources to help North Korean Christians share the Bible with other North Koreans wherever North Koreans are found. Underground North Korean Christians say, ‘Give us the tools, and we’ll complete the work.’ Christians around the world all play a part in that supply chain, whether through finances, prayer, technology, sharing ideas, or gradually, patiently moving Bibles step by step into the hands of North Koreans who want them. Every year there are new challenges and new obstacles, but we plan years in advance, anticipating difficulties and working together with Christians in North and South Korea and around the world to develop new technologies and strategies to identify and overcome possible problems. We believe the adversity makes us more creative and ultimately more effective. The Lord always finds a way, even in a pandemic.”
Funds originally designated for Bible balloon launching were reallocated to enable a fifth daily radio broadcast by Voice of the Martyrs Korea. The broadcasts include dramatized recordings from the Bible.
Foley says these new methods and technologies, as well as the strengthening and expansion of its own network, are part of the reason why Voice of the Martyrs Korea is projecting a 30% increase in its Bible distribution numbers for 2022. He also points to the addition of a fifth radio broadcast in 2020 as a positive outcome of South Korean government efforts to ban balloon launching. “Through the cooperation of our funding partners, we were able to reallocate some of the funds we would normally have used for Bible balloon launching to add another 30–minute daily radio broadcast, which includes Bible readings.” Foley said the ministry was also able to complete a new dramatized recording of the Bible in 2020 for use on its radio broadcast and other electronic distribution media.
Foley points to the 2020 White Paper on Religious Freedom by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights as proof of the impact that Bible distribution by groups like Voice of the Martyrs Korea is having inside North Korea. “At the time we started Voice of the Martyrs Korea 20 years ago, the Center estimates that essentially zero percent of people inside North Korea had seen a Bible with their own eyes. When the Center did its 2016 report, they reported that the number of those inside North Korea who had seen a Bible had jumped to nearly 8 percent. In the 2020 report, the Center says that number has continued to increase at a rate of 4 percent a year. Our experience is that the more Bibles we distribute to North Koreans, the more North Koreans want to read the Bible.”
A letter received by Voice of the Martyrs Korea this week from a North Korean expressing thanks for an audio Bible distributed by the Voice of the Martyrs Korea network.
Foley says what motivates him most are the notes the ministry receives from individual North Korean Bible recipients. “We received a note that says in part, ‘Through MP3 we have all come to know that God created the world and that God is a living God and is protecting us. We never knew this until we received the words on the MP3 along with warm gifts. I am not of course able to understand it perfectly, but I will keep listening one time, ten times, and a hundred time to keep his words.’ What sacrifice would be too great to get a Bible in the hands of someone who treasures it that much? I can’t think of any sacrifice I’d rather be a part of.”
A young North Korean in Thailand reads a cartoon Bible from Voice of the Martyrs Korea.
자주 묻는 질문
What are balloon launches?
With North Korea being a closed country, distribution of unapproved literature is a capital offense. Distribution via land couriers is highly dangerous and the liability for those caught doing so often results in death or forced labor … and it’s even worse for those carrying Christian literature like tracts or Bibles. So we launch large hydrogen balloons into North Korea carrying the Christian message.
What do we launch?
In 2019, we launched 28,672 North Korean dialect New Testaments, and 5,000 USB drives/SD cards into North Korea.
Where do we launch from?
Balloon launches take place in the countryside areas near the border between South Korea and North Korea where the wind current is favorable. Complex weather measurements are taken to ensure balloons float in the right direction and land where intended inside North Korea. Through multiple launch points, we are able to drop materials on areas that are largely unpenetrated by the Gospel.
Who does the launching?
The balloon launch team is made up of staff and students from VOM Korea’s Underground University Program. Our team is “on call” and ready to go out for a launch at any time: day or night, rain or shine.
What does an average balloon launch look like?
No balloon launch is ever average, but below is a video from a recent balloon launch in 2017!