(Part 2) Korean balloon launch investigations explained

By August 12, 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. Read Part One of our conversation here.


Mission Network News (MNN): You’ve mentioned in our earlier conversations something about how the world sometimes draws the line between spiritual and political peace where the Church would not necessarily do that. Can you elaborate on that?

Eric Foley of Voice of the Martyrs Korea: […]The investigation has been broadened to other North Korea-related NGOs, a total of 89 North Korea-related NGOs, which again, points out that balloon launching is the tip of a very large iceberg. Essentially, that iceberg is whether NGOs will be able to or be allowed to operate doing North Korea work that’s outside the government’s plan or preference. NGO means non-governmental, but it is being construed in this current circumstance as anti-governmental to the degree that when we do things that are outside the government’s plan or purpose, it is conceived of as being anti or against the government’s purpose. “Creating tension” is the term that the government likes to use, creating tension in its effort to deal with attempting to achieve peace with North Korea. Our statement has been that peace is a much broader issue than simply the political dimensions.

For 15 years in our balloon launching work, we’ve been able to demonstrate how it’s possible for the government to achieve its national security goals and yet for the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion not to be constrained. That is to say, we’ve worked to listen and try to respond to any concerns or questions that the government has raised, while at the same time recognizing that for Christians, and for other religions, and even other people in civil society, their understanding of peace extends beyond to political peace. The idea that peace can be had, for example, by bringing an end to the Korean War and negotiated political settlement between North and South Korea sounds like an important part of the peace process, and yet it doesn’t fully address the questions of peace.

The cover of one of the BIbles VOM sends to North Korea (Image courtesy of VOM Korea)

From a Christian standpoint, we would say that there is a peace that the world cannot give that can only come from Christ, and that peace is not competitive with national security goals or things like that that governments undertake. The government has, through its investigation… created the idea that anything that is outside of the government’s plan related to peace actually creates tension and works against that plan. That’s an unusual situation that is now drawing the attention of not only human rights groups around the world, but the United Nations. So the United Nations, through its North Korea-related point person, has urged the South Korean government not to take this action and not to approach it with such speed and swiftness. [They’ve] urged the government to talk with NGOs and to make sure that the values that NGOs bring -which are related to peace, but in ways that tend to be broader than simply negotiating peace between two states – that those elements of human rights and religious freedom should not be lost.

That’s why, as I’ve said, this issue related to balloon launching is simply the tip of a very large iceberg. And so now, not just human rights organizations around the world but the United Nations, is urging the South Korean government to reconsider its rapid investigation and inspection of North Korea-related NGOs, seeing it as a real threat to civil society – not only free speech but also issues related to religious freedom and those are the ones of course that relate most to our work.


MNN: So why now? Why is this the line that officials are drawing with balloon launches?

Foley: I think for some people it will seem like a sudden event, but for us, it’s actually a continuation of a process that began in 2018 with the meetings between the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, and Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, and of course the meetings between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. From the South-North meetings came a declaration called the Panmunjom Declaration, and it identified a set of agreements between North and South Korea.

That happened in April 2018. In May 2018, we received a call for the first time in our history from the South Korean government Ministry of Unification. We’ve never been contacted by them before ever in our history because our own NGO is not with them at all. In other words, in Korea, different NGOs are chartered by different parts of the government or different groups depending upon the type of NGO you are, and ours is under the Cultural Policy Division because we’re a Christian NGO. So we never interacted with the Ministry of Unification, which deals with, typically, with North Korean defector issues and North-South issues, but they contacted us in May 2018. [They told us to] “stop making broadcasts and doing many of the things that you do because they create a bad air” – this is the phrasing of the Ministry of Unification – “it creates a bad air for peace.” And they said, “In exchange, what we foresee in the future is the opportunity for you possibly to participate in cultural exchanges where the North and South Korean governments will create events at which North and South Korean citizens may be invited to participate, and you can perhaps come there and you may even be able to hand out your Bibles at those events.”

Preparing balloons for launch (Photo courtesy of VOM Canada)

We said, “We’re not missionaries. Actually, we’re partners of the underground North Korean church. The underground North Korean Church, by definition, remains enemies of the North Korean state because anyone who does religious Christian activity in North Korea commits a crime against the state. And so as the partners of underground North Korean Christians, our work is not missional in nature. We exist to serve the Lord by serving them and asking them how we can support their work of discipleship and evangelism in North Korea. That means that our issue falls completely outside of the boundaries of cultural exchanges between the North and South Korean in government; our partners are enemies of the North Korean state, and we ourselves, according to North Korea’s response to the United Nations report on religious freedom and human rights in North Korea in 2014, are called terrorists. Missionaries commit what North Korea calls acts of terror. And so by definition, we fall outside the boundaries of this peace process.”

We were told at that time two years ago that we would need to stop doing what we were doing. And so it’s not only the balloon launches that create concern for North Korea; they call everything we do acts of terror, from our radio broadcasting on through our work in running our discipleship bases in China and evangelizing North Korean workers wherever they’re found in Russia, China, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and even Eastern Europe. So it’s been actually an ongoing process where, beginning with that Panmunjom Declaration, a particular vision of peace was raised. That vision of peace was a peace that was negotiated between states: the North Korean state and the South Korean state. It would take the form of a variety of initiatives, and those initiatives would be primarily to make sure that all interactions between North Koreans and South Koreans are mediated or coordinated by the government.

This is the question then of peace; does peace mean that all interactions between North and South Korean people must happen through the government? If so, then it really calls into question all of the work that Voice of the Martyrs Korea does, since our work is in support of people who are are considered enemies of the North Korean state.

Packing balloons with light Bibles before launch (Photo courtesy VOM Canada)

So this is an ongoing process, and legislative elections in the National Assembly District last year created a majority that matches the President’s party. That majority makes it possible to consider and pass certain legislation, and the legislation that is being enacted or considered and discussed relates to how to take that Panmunjom Declaration of 2018 and turn it into law. What concerns the United Nations is that civil society in the form of North Korea-related NGOs is being excluded from that peace process. And our definitions of peace, which are more than just definitions of how states interact, are now considered to create tension and to be anti-North Korean in nature.

The issue is not only a Christian issue, but it has special importance to Christians. The reason why is because the peace that is being instituted that comes from Panmunjom is a peace that says interaction between North and South Korean people has to be agreeable to both governments. And so even our Voice of the Martyrs Korea newsletter, which shares the stories in South Korea of North Korean Christians who are persecuted for their faith, could be one of those items that is considered to be anti-North Korea because it raises tension. Certainly, our radio broadcasts have been mentioned specifically by the Ministry of Unification as something that creates “a bad air for peace.”

That’s what’s at issue for human rights groups. Of course, they’re not Christian for the most part. Some are. But many human rights groups want the opportunity to freely speak about conditions in North Korea.

Image courtesy of VOM Australia

Our situation is not like that at all. Our situation is not about trying to speak about political conditions, but our job is to tell the story of underground North Korean Christians. And so that is endangered any time that peace is perceived to be an activity that governments grant and that governments can take away. So that is the emerging challenge. And it’s not something that just came out of nowhere, but it actually does root back in the Panmunjom Declaration, and that has its roots in a much earlier stage of North-South relations from a prior president of Korea, Kim De Jong, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for what is called “Sunshine Policy.” He believed that the way North Korea should be approached is on the basis of these kinds of cooperation to reduce the things that create tension for North Korean people. So this has a long history in South Korean politics, and anytime that this particular political party comes to power, these are the issues that are raised. And the goal of President Moon is to institute these in the Constitution of South Korea so they don’t become only legislative matters, but they become things that are constitutional in nature and cannot be changed by any political party.


MNN: On the other end of this, ideally, what would you hope to see? Do you just want to see a return to normalcy, for things to keep going as they did before, or something else?

Foley: You know, it’s a good question what normal is. Two years ago, people said to us, “You need to stop launching, it’s a time of peace!” And now this year, they say “You need to stop launching, it’s a time of war!” So all the way back to 2005, every year, there’s a different reason why now is the wrong time to launch. And so the normal situation that we face is that we continue to need to stand as Christians on our legal rights in South Korea, both the rights that are given to us through our being chartered as an NGO and then certainly in the criminal investigation and into me personally for balloon launch activities. It’s important for me to be able to stand on my legal rights so these issues can be rightly addressed in court. So, in terms of what we hope we would see happen, I think we’ve learned from North Korea and underground Christians the truth to apply in our lives when Jesus says “Sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof.” We really hope only that today, the Lord Jesus is able to use Voice of the Martyrs Korea to accomplish His purpose, whatever that is. We pray always, daily, not for any specific outcome, but for simply the privilege to be able to be used by the Lord Jesus.

Our hope isn’t for any particular outcome in terms of a change in policy or laws. It’s simply that the Lord’s will be done and that the Lord finds Voice of the Martyrs Korea a willing servant or a willing vessel.


MNN: Is there anything else you want to clarify?

Foley: Sometimes people ask, is this a religious freedom issue? Is this a human rights issue? Is this a political issue? My response is “Yes; it’s all of those things!” Human rights organizations are concerned about it for one reason and political parties are concerned about it for another. But Christians in South Korea are concerned about these matters because initially, I think they had a hope that it was all a big misunderstanding, that once it was made clear that we only launched Bibles, we don’t launch anti-North Korean propaganda, that somehow would be cleared up and all of this would go away. [But] even though the misunderstanding has been cleared up, we are still accused of launching anti-North Korean propaganda. That is how the Bible is being described and that creates real concerns from a religious freedom standpoint of how the South Korean government will deal with North Korean ministry activity in the future.



Header photo courtesy of VOM Canada.