Photo courtesy of Seoul USA
For decades, the international community has been trying to figure out how best to help North Koreans and eventually topple (or at least liberalize) the totalitarian regime they live under. Sanctions, threats, and aid from governments and NGOs have all failed to change the situation, but American Evangelical pastor Eric Foley says he has what the North Koreans need: Bibles, and lots of them.
Eric is the leader of Seoul USA, which he founded with his wife, Hyun Sook, in 2003. The organization is devoted to spreading the word of Jesus throughout Asia, particularly in North Korea, where Juche, the worship of the state, is the only faith tolerated by the government. Underground churches exist, but Christians face persecution. In 2012, a Korean American Christian missionary named Kenneth Bae was arrested on trumped-up charges and remains in prison today.
Establishing a traditional church mission in the country is impossible, so Eric has gotten creative: He attaches Bibles and religious tracts to 40-foot-tall hydrogen-filled balloons, then floats them over the border from South Korea. The balloons eventually deflate, falling softly with their precious, soul-saving cargo on the oppressed populace below.
Seoul USA’s website says that the organization launched 500,000 Christian flyers and 50,000 New Testaments into North Korea in 2013 alone. They also work alongside defectors in Seoul to bring the word of God to North Koreans in other ways, though the organization wouldn’t tell me the nature of this work or what its missionary training program consisted of.
“We can release little information more than what is available on our website, both for the protection of the participants and their families and also for the security of our operations,” Eric wrote in an email.
He also told me that those who scoff at the idea of sneaking Bibles instead of other forms of aid, like food, into the country weren’t seeing the bigger picture.
“Westerners have not listened to the voices of North Koreans, so they are puzzled and, sometimes, derogatory, when they see us launch balloons,” Eric told me. “But Westerners who take the time to listen to North Koreans will come to understand that, in their view, the problem in North Korea is not a lack of food.”
Eric’s goal is for North Koreans to develop their own brand of Christianity, one independent of the “Western or South Korean methods.” If the religion spreads, Eric thinks it could undermine the government’s efforts to maintain the image of Kim Jong Un as a godlike figure and topple Juche entirely.
“Only Christianity can unmask that North Korea’s Juche ideology is, at its roots, a fraudulent adaptation of the Christian faith itself,” Foley said. “North Korean defectors know this, and that is why the majority of their efforts to reach their fellow citizens are Christian-oriented.”