Korean balloon launch investigations explained (Part 1)

By August 11, 2020

South Korea (MNN) — This interview has received some editing for brevity. However, it has largely been preserved in its original format for clarity. To learn more about the ongoing balloon launch investigations, read our previous article here.


Mission Network News (MNN): Before we get any further, can you give us an update on the balloon launches and where you guys are at with officials and your ministry right now?

Eric Foley of Voice of the Martyrs Korea: With our ministry, we remain fully operational and committed to our full slate of work in partnership with underground Christians, including our underground North Korean brothers and sisters in the balloon launching work that we do. We don’t comment on specific launches, but any time the weather is good, that’s always our cue to know that we need to keep the promise we made to underground North Korean Christians 18 years ago to bring Bibles into North Korea by balloon.

As regards officials, the investigations continue, of which we’re party to two. One regards our NGO status, and that came about because one of the governors – the governor of the largest province – indicated that balloon launchers as a group (and there are four balloon launchers; we’re the only ones that launch Bibles and then the other three groups launch political information primarily) were launching anti-North Korean material and were responsible for what he called “Unforgiveable crimes that needed to be investigated.” He said we’re probably guilty of fraud, misallocation of donations, and endangering the public welfare. This is what then spawned the initial investigation of four balloon launch organizations.

For us, balloon launching is only about 10% of what we do, but we’re one of the four groups that launch in South Korea, and so we were one of those groups that came under that investigation. That investigation, as we understand it, is ongoing, although we’ve met with Seoul city officials, the Cultural Policy Division which holds our NGO status. We supplied all of the information to them that they asked for, and they indicated that what we were doing matched our statement of purpose and that they saw no financial malfeasance from the information that we had supplied. But it’s the nature of these kinds of investigations that they’re always ongoing. They never seem to reach any kind of conclusion where you’re exonerated. But as far as we understand, we supplied everything that’s necessary and there’s no imminent action.

VOM workers record scripture for broadcasts into North korea (Photo courtesy of VOM Korea)

The other investigation is related to me personally and to criminal charges related to balloon launching, and that also is ongoing. And sometimes we read about developments in that front in the same way that you would: through the media. And then others happen through being called in for investigation, and that’s what’s ongoing. So, on the one hand, it’s been a rapid process. On the other hand, of course, these things take time. Our part of the process, as it always has been, is to fully comply with everything that we’re asked to supply. We always invite those opportunities to be transparent in what we do, and as we’ve said in regard to the criminal investigation of a balloon launching, we fully submit to the authorities all of our work, and if it’s determined that our ministry is a crime, I will faithfully and willingly submit to whatever punishment is determined.


MNN: Clarify for me, because this has been a point of confusion, is this a religious crackdown or is this a political crackdown?

Foley: I think it would best be described as an investigation into North Korea-related NGOs. In South Korea, there are many different kinds of NGOs working with North Korean people. And so that would be the best way to describe this investigation. It began as an investigation of the four organizations that launched balloons, three of which do political launches and the fourth – us – launches only Bibles. Then, it expanded to 25 other NGOs that do North Korea-related work, but their work is not balloon work. Altogether, 89 North Korea-related NGOs have been notified of pending inspection. That’s the term that’s being used for these other NGOs is inspection. As they say, it relates to issues about balloon work and “other matters.” That’s how they described it.


Nighttime balloon launch (Photo courtesy of VOM Korea)

MNN: Speaking of how people are perceiving this and seeing this, you mentioned before that this is a conversation that, for better or for worse – and probably for worse – is taking place primarily in the media. Can you talk specifically about what that actually looks like?

Foley: Yeah. So there are no new laws that have been passed related to balloon launching… Balloon launching has always remained unpopular, certainly with the North Korean government, but even for the South Korean government, balloon launching presents a different set of challenges to them, which varies depending upon the government’s agenda in any given year. So this year… the government indicated that because Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea had strongly condemned balloon launches and that it was necessary to enforce a ban on balloon launches using existing laws, what we call municipal laws or laws from local cities. They indicated that balloon launching would be stopped on the basis of laws that ban littering and outdoor advertising as well as the use of the national emergency safety rules. These are typically rules that relate to, for example, environmental conditions. So it’s not that any new laws that have been passed, but what’s happened is that the South Korean government, through the Ministry of Unification and through the governor of Gyeonggi province, the [most populous] province in Korea, is using an existing set of laws in an effort to indicate that they believe that balloon launching is dangerous and needs to be stopped.

The challenge has been whether these laws actually apply to balloon launching or not. Litter laws are used to govern littering, and outdoor advertising laws are used to govern outdoor advertising, so the application of these laws and the national emergency safety rules and applying this to balloon launching hasn’t really been a good fit. It’s created a lot of questions. In fact, the head of the South Korean government Ministry of Unification… made a public statement yesterday. He said it’s necessary to pass specific laws on balloon launching because, of course, what’s happened in the summertime is that the effort to use existing laws to ban balloon launches has met with great difficulty.

What the South Korean government has done is, rather than as we might perceive, prosecuting the case through the court system, the case is prosecuted through the media by indicating organizations that do balloon launching are guilty of unforgivable crimes. This is… the statement of the governor, that we’ve committed fraud or misallocated donations. These are statements made without any basis, or in fact, any suspicion of problems. The governor of Gyeonggi province also called me a spy who was mocking Korea instruction. These are very unusual statements to make, and so our goal has been to say that, as we have always done in the history of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, we will always submit to the law, and our obedience is to the Lord Jesus; our submission is to the laws under which were placed.

Preparing a broadcast for North Korean believers (Photo courtesy VOM Korea)

We don’t consider the Bible to be either litter or outdoor advertising. And we know, after having the cooperative relationship with the authorities that we’ve had for the last 15 years – we don’t launch in residential areas, we launch in very remote areas where the only creatures that are there are mosquitoes and military personnel. And so for 15 years, the government has observed our launches in the form of the police, the military, even the intelligence services. We don’t receive any funding from them, we don’t supply any information to them, but we don’t hide from them. And so it would be rare for us to have a launch that they aren’t at and photographing our launch or asking us questions, so the authorities know very well the kind of launching that we do. And so to promote the idea that Voice of the Martyrs Korea launches anti-North Korean propaganda in ways that endanger citizens is, in our view, an inappropriate way to proceed in the matter.

That’s why we welcome the investigation because we think it brings clarity. And we think also it’s necessary for these facts to be tried in the appropriate place for where facts are tried, namely in the courts and through actual investigation. So the police released information to the media, for example, that I was launching anti-North Korean propaganda, when in fact, I was launching only Bibles. The police indicate in their reports that I was stopped by concerned citizens when they actually tell me, when I asked them the question, “Why did you stop me?” they say, “Because we track your license plate number wherever you go.” And so we think it’s necessary to take these kinds of statements out of the media and really place them in the form of a formal investigation, whether that be what we’ve experienced as an NGO or now the criminal charges against me personally, and so we always welcome those and the opportunity to bring transparency to these kinds of charges that are made against us.



Header photo courtesy of VOM Korea.

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