North Korea is a closed country and distribution of unapproved literature is a capital offence. Distribution by land couriers is highly dangerous, and if caught, couriers may face forced labour or execution. It’s particularly dangerous for those carrying Christian literature like tracts or Bibles.
Every year, in partnership with other VOM offices, including Australia, Voice of the Martyrs Korea (VOMK) sends approximately 30,000 Bibles into North Korea by balloon.
In addition, twice a month, rice and Bibles are packed into water bottles (normally about 500-1,000 per launch), then tossed into the sea from a small island across the border from North Korea. The current carries the bottles to the North Korean coastline.
This is one of the most effective methods of reaching North Korea and environmentally friendly too. The bottles that are launched have already been recycled and the North Koreans reuse them once they arrive.
However, on Friday 5 June, South Korean police prevented VOMK from sending aid and Bibles to North Korea.
VOMK had planned to float about 500 bottles — filled with rice, vitamins and Bibles — into North Korea.
The activists were met by about two dozen local police officers, unidentified plainclothes officials, and local residents, who blocked a road near the intended launch site.
VOMK’s CEO Eric Foley says that while Bible launches have been stopped by police in the past, this year is different.
The difference is a consequence of an agreement, signed in April 2018, between North and South Korea, in which South Korea essentially agreed to take steps to stop balloon launches.
Previous political differences and external circumstances delayed South Korea’s follow-through. However, the country has just had an election. President Moon is riding a new wave of popularity; and the National Assembly majority now rests squarely with the president.
“Something that’s been waiting to happen for the last two years has now come to fruition… the solid support at the level of the legislature in the president’s office to implement all of this fits into how President Moon sees his legacy, which is in furthering his understanding of peace between North and South Korea. In his mind, that peace includes the restraint on all kinds of launching.” Foley says.
The day before VOMK’s launch was stopped, Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, threatened to scrap a military tension-reduction agreement and to halt other cross-border projects in anger over Seoul’s failure to stop North Korean defectors from sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.
Within hours of the threat from North Korea, South Korea’s government, said it would push for legislation to ban the launches.
It is not clear what type of activities South Korea’s government intends to outlaw or what the punishment would be for violating the rules.
Foley says, “This decision won’t stop VOMK from fulfilling its mission.
“Our work is non-political. This is not symbolic; it’s not a protest. We just have a job to do – our job is to get the Bible into North Korea.”