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17 July 2014

In the absence of hope the Christian message shines brightest

In the absence of hope the Christian message shines brightest

Rev Eric Foley is the co-founder and CEO of Seoul USA which runs  a range of discipleship and training programmes for North Korean Christians. They are passionate about mobilising western and Asian churches to remember the underground Church of North Korea, and also do direct outreach into North Korea through their radio ministry and balloon launches.

What inspired you to found Seoul USA?

I had been a pastor for 25 years and was consulting more than 1,500 ministries around the world (none related to North Korea). My wife is South Korean and was a fashion designer, and we had a wonderful life in the USA. One night 14 years ago I had a dream in which the Lord showed me that our family would give up everything we had to serve the underground North Korean Church. And God brought it to pass.

Tell us about Seoul USA's work

We live in Seoul, South Korea, which is home to 26,000 North Koreans, eighty per cent of whom maintain regular contact with relatives back home, mainly through illegal mobile phones and couriers. Through our personal discipleship programme Underground Technology we train defectors to grow to fullness in Christ and share their faith with their relatives.

Our Underground University trains North Koreans to reach their people wherever they are found, including the thousands of North Korean contract labourers in Russia, China, Mongolia and the Middle East.

The suicide rate among defectors in South Korea is extremely high (16.3per cent), meaning the most dangerous place for a North Korean Christian to live is Seoul. The main problem is loneliness, so with our partners Release International we facilitate relationships meaning North Korean Christians can build friendships and connect with Christians across the world. We let them know they have a role to play in God's great story, and this is really transformative.

Is your ministry dangerous?

Our balloons filled with the Christian message are considered missiles, and representatives from the military and police attend when we launch them across the border. Our underground radio broadcasts are always targeted as they are more comprehensible than most programmes. This is because we use North Korean announcers, whereas most stations use South Koreans (despite the dialect being 40 per cent divergent). We have to carefully guard people's identities as North Korea is always eager to find out who our announcers are, and families inside can be punished by association.

How is God working in North Korea?

In North Korea we see a lot of healings, and God often works through ministry to those who are dying. Thirty thousand of North Korea's 100,000 Christians are in camps, but the government has recently recognised that this is counterproductive, because in the absence of hope the Christian message shines brightest. North Koreans have always regarded the camps as part of their mission field. Now we find the government is executing Christians more frequently or placing them in Christian-only sections so they cannot interact with others in the camps.

How do Christians evangelise in North Korea?

Most North Koreans will never see any Christian outside of their own family. Every person is required to turn over information to the government about the two homes either side of them, so it is too risky for the North Korean Church to meet together. Suspicious behaviour is immediately reported and Christians can disappear almost immediately. Evangelism and Christian activity is therefore always centred on the family.

Spouses often take years to tell their partners they are Christian, and parents will not overtly share their faith until the child is about 15-years-old and able to withstand the psychological scrutiny of teachers who try to uncover religious activity in homes. Some of our students, when learning Christian songs or teachings, will only then realise that their family in North Korea was Christian, and had been teaching them their faith discreetly.

How do you think the western Church views persecuted Christians?

I asked the first underground Christian we met "how can we pray for you?", and he laughed and said "you pray for us? We pray for you!" I asked him why, as we have so much freedom and are able to help. He replied: "That is the problem with you, you have so much that you often put your faith in your money and freedom. In North Korea we have neither, but we have God and we find He is sufficient Don't pray for us, but with us" he said, "that God may find each of us faithful in the area he has placed us." This changed the entire tone of our ministry.

What can the UK Church learn from persecuted Christians?

I've been transformed through my encounter with persecuted Christians. More than three generations of North Korean Christians have been continuing to bravely advance the gospel in an environment of complete intolerance, and they represent what God calls us all to be –bold to advance gospel.

Persecuted Christians challenge us to be faithful in the circumstances we are in, and have the same desperation for Christ. North Koreans place great emphasis on the Ten Commandments, the Apostle's Creed and the Lord's Prayer. When they hear that many Western Christians do not regard these teachings as important they are stunned, wondering "how can you be Christian without knowing these things?" They challenge us to remember the importance of these historic expressions of faith.

Do you have hope that the North Korean regime will change?

We've recently seen a new level of rhetoric from the regime, with North Korea's recent statement to the UN blaming Christians and Christian missionaries for terrorism and trafficking in their country. The missionary Kenneth Bae has now been held longer than any political prisoner in North Korean history, and a South Korean missionary was recently sentenced to a life of hard labour. In the past the regime would detain and then release missionaries on humanitarian grounds, but now they are publicly blaming missionaries and giving harsher penalties.

North Korea is attentive to world public opinion, so Christians need to speak out. There are opportunities, for example through Release International, to let North Korea know that we will not be silent in the face of the detainment of missionaries and punishment of underground Christians. Now is the most important time for UK Christians to make their voice heard to North Korea.