Rev. Eric Foley, the CEO of Voice of the Martyrs Korea (VOMK), is facing criminal charges from authorities in South Korea. Foley and VOMK smuggle the Bible into North Korea through “balloon launches,” and North Korea’s leaders have said their southern neighbor will “pay a dear price” if launches like these do not stop.
“Essentially, the police recommending the charges guarantees that I’ll be charged,” Eric Foley told Mission Network News (MNN). “It’s just a question of when. Could be tomorrow, could be next week, could be next month; we don’t know.” South Korean police have recommended that Foley be charged on three different counts. One is for breaking a law that regulates commerce between North and South Korea, another is for threatening national security, and the third pertains to the use of high-pressure gas.
Because VOMK has been conducting balloon launches for over a decade on good terms with South Korean officials, it is not clear what the consequences of the charges against Foley could be. “For 15 years, we’ve had a good relationship with the authorities. We’ve had police, military, even the intelligence services present at all of our launches,” he said. “Our case asks, ‘[Should] launching Bible balloons, which has been legal up until this point in time, be considered illegal not just going forward, but related to past launches?’”
Eric Foley: Pray That God Is Glorified
Getting the Bible into North Korea is extremely dangerous. Even though the Bible is officially allowed in the country, people who are caught with one can be executed or face forced labor. Yet believers in the country are hungry for God’s Word, which is why Eric Foley and VOMK have been smuggling Scripture into North Korea for the past 15 years through balloon and bottle launches.
For the balloon launches, VOMK fills high-tech hydrogen balloons with copies of the New Testament and USB drives/SD cards. Volunteers then release the balloons from the countryside in Gyeonggi province during the summer when the winds are going in the right direction. After launching the balloons, VOMK uses GPS technology to track them and see where they land inside North Korea. VOMK’s balloon launch season ends in September when the weather changes.
Another way that VOMK gets the Bible into North Korea is through bottle launches. Volunteers stuff water bottles with rice and copies of the Bible and take them to an island across the border from North Korea. There, they toss the bottles into the sea and allow the currents to carry them to the northern country.
Foley admits that balloon launching “has always remained unpopular,” but this year, South Korean leaders have significantly changed their posture toward such launches. “Suddenly, balloon launching has become dangerous and balloon launchers [are] criminals, and we’re considered crazy,” he told MNN.
One of the primary reasons for this change seems to be that the South Korean government is seeking to build its relationship with North Korea. In April 2018, South Korea and North Korea signed the “Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula,” the purpose of which was to denuclearize the peninsula. The Washington Post published a translation of that agreement, which specifically states that neither country will send material into the other: “The two sides agreed to transform the demilitarized zone into a peace zone in a genuine sense by ceasing as of May 1 this year all hostile acts and eliminating their means, including broadcasting through loudspeakers and distribution of leaflets, in the areas along the Military Demarcation Line.”
Four groups, including VOMK, have since come under scrutiny for their balloon launches. VOMK is the only group that exclusively sends Bibles. The others, such as Fighters for a Free North Korea (run by a North Korean defector), send materials that include news and political commentary.
On June 4, 2020, Kim Yo-jong (the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un), issued a statement in which she said certain agreements between North and South Korea would be void unless South Korea put an end to activists sending leaflets into North Korea. In the statement, Kim Yo-jong said that if South Korean leaders did not act, they would “pay a dear price,” and she referred to defectors from North Korea as “human scum” and “mongrel dogs.”