Many organizations focus on preparing North Korean defectors for future ministry and service to North Korea once unification happens. But Jesus calls us to focus on today, not tomorrow. And today there are crucial and significant ministry opportunities where North Koreans are sorely needed. Every year, more than 1,000 North Koreans defect into South Korea. Some of these defectors bring with them a burning desire to know God. Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s Underground Technology (UT) school was created to help these defectors. UT staff work together with South Korean churches to disciple NK defectors in rudiments of the Christian faith. God is truly moving among our UT students, and we would like to share one of their stories with you.
Recently, we shared with you the story of CR, a North Korean whom we met in China when she was a still sex-trafficked woman. She, and a handful of other women, had heard about Jesus and had contacted one of our former partners to learn more about him. That partner introduced her to us.
After losing contact with this partner, we were certain we would never see CR again. But God, in his infinite mystery, brought her to our office in South Korea last year. CR, it turns out, had defected and had used the Bible we had given her to find us. She eagerly signed up for UT classes and—despite living far from the office—attended many of the classes.
When we last wrote about CR, a staff member had visited her and, with her best interests in mind, challenged her to attend church more regularly. This visit was a timely visit, because a few weeks ago CR unexpectedly passed away.
We didn’t hear this news from CR’s family (as a defector, she lived alone in Korea) or from the news media (who were coolly silent about this news) but from concerned students who had asked their own detectives about her.
It turns out that defection wasn’t a “Happy Ever After” for CR. Defection, for her, meant leaving behind her husband and son. She had wanted to bring them to Seoul with her, but lacked the funds. In the absence of any obvious ways to make vast sums of money in a short amount of time, CR sometimes did wrong things.
Although we were shocked when we heard about CR’s passing, our students were more surprised by our surprise. CR’s situation is common to North Koreans all over the world. North Koreans do everything they can to survive. As you can imagine, this kind of lifestyle doesn’t often end well.
One of our staff members reported, “I often underestimated who our students actually are. Our North Koreans students have nearly died many times in their lives. They have heard that ‘someone was found dead’ every morning when they woke up during the great famine.” The news of CR’s death simply didn’t surprise them.
As fellow North Koreans, some of our students had known about CR’s struggle to raise money long before we found out and were perhaps in the best position to help her through the difficult situation she was in. But in order for our students to take this step, they must first learn how to walk: Many of them are unsure of how to assess CR’s situation in a Christian way.
This is one of the lessons that UT aims to teach them.
During the week of Easter, Pastor Foley and Dr. Foley gathered the students together to hold a memorial service for CR. We were CR’s only family in South Korea. When she arrived in South Korea, mission students who had discipled her called her “daughter” and brought her supplies. When she was struggling, it was our staff that visited her. And when she died, we were the only ones to hold to memorial service for her.
The service wasn’t just to remember her in word, however, but in action.
CR did some bad things because she had learned to rely on these things in North Korea. She isn’t the only North Korean who does this.
Just because a North Korean defects doesn’t mean they’ve escaped North Korea. Many continue to repeat patterns or ways of thinking they’ve learned in their struggle to survive in North Korea. Ultimately, these choices (and inability to leave North Korea behind them) results in the highest rate of suicide in the world.
Our students regularly struggle with this and so do their North Korean family, friends, and neighbors. As students learn the rudiments of Christianity, however, their view of the world begins to change and those around them begin to take notice.
“Whenever we meet our students’ friends or family, they talk about how much the student has changed since they came to UT,” one staff member explained. Friends and family are deeply impacted by these changes and several have applied to UT, themselves, because of this.
It’s easy to think that we can help people like CR by bringing them to South Korea. But the reality is that North Koreans struggle with several problems that the rest of us have trouble understanding. Having the humility to admit that other North Koreans are much better teachers and healers than ourselves is difficult, but vital to North Korean ministry. UT is essential in this regard because it helps North Koreans to take their first steps to becoming the teachers and healers that their people need them to be.
Many people pray that North Korea will be opened so that North Korean ministry can begin. But did you know that North Korean ministry has already begun? Every year, more than 1,000 North Koreans defect into South Korea. Some of these defectors bring with them a burning desire to know God. Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s Underground Technology (UT) school was created to help these defectors. UT staff work together with South Korean churches to disciple NK defectors in rudiments of the Christian faith. God is truly moving among our UT students, and we would like to share one of their stories with you.
It all started with a simple e-mail.
“There are some sex-trafficked North Korean women here who want to learn more about the Bible,” a partner in China told us. “Would you mind coming out to teach them?”
When we arrived at the appointed place, we found four women waiting for us. One of these women, named CR, was especially passionate about the discipleship process. She asked many questions and, with great delight, received one of our North Korean dialect Bibles. Our farewell was mixed with a twinge of sadness as we were unsure of whether we would ever see CR again.
Imagine our surprise, then, when, years later, CR showed up at our office in South Korea!
With great excitement, CR showed us the very same Bible we had given her. At Hanawon (the top-secret resettlement facility defectors must pass through before entering Korea), she had searched desperately for us—describing several of the VOMK’s North Korean Underground University missionary training students who had visited her in vivid detail and displaying the Bible we had given with her—and was finally given our contact information by the Hanawon pastor.
Originally, CR had big plans for her life in South Korea. Despite the government assigning her to a house five hours away from the VOMK office, CR wanted to begin our UT school. She wanted to become a stronger Christian. She wanted to learn more about the God who had led her safely from North Korea and into South Korea.
Over time, however, CR began to feel the weight of her plans.
When a staff member traveled to her house, they discovered that CR hadn’t been attending church. All UT students are required to attend a church. Although this requirement may seem stringent, it is actually done for the student’s benefit. Often, defectors who do not attend church become sick and depressed. And this isn’t just our observation; our students have noticed it as well.
“At first, I disliked having to attend church every week,” one student shared. “But I see now how important it is. When my husband and I first moved into our apartment in South Korea, there were five other North Korean defector couples who lived close to us. Several of them were Christian, but none of them went to church.”
As time went on, the student noticed that the five other couples were becoming increasingly sick and depressed. She and her husband, however, were not.
“It’s because we went to church,” the student asserted.
Since CR still felt like she wanted to attend the UT class, the staff member asked why she had stopped attending church. CR explained that her Chinese husband and son were coming to South Korea soon, so she needed to prepare for their arrival. Since her husband and son would both be foreigners, she would have to work even harder to support them.
Our VOMK staff had the difficult task of reminding her of the most important way she can support her husband and son: By growing in her faith.
“I told CR the story about the Israelites worshipping the golden calf and reminded her that we cannot worship God only in the way we want,” the staff member said. “God holds me responsible for telling students the truth.”
To the staff member’s surprise, CR didn’t respond defensively. She simply nodded and said, “Aha, now I understand why I need to attend church!”
She promised the staff member that she would begin to attend church from now on.
“We had talked about this before,” the staff member observed, “but the spirit opened her ears to listen this time.”
Even when classes are out, VOMK staff are working hard to disciple the students which God has entrusted them. Several students find UT to be an eye-opening experience. Throughout the year, students have expressed surprise as they learn about the Christian faith, as they realize that a family member, relative, or friend back in North Korea had actually been a Christian and the student hadn’t realized it until learning more about Christianity.
During the break, however, these eye-opening realizations tend to dim as their focus wanders to the attacks they are facing. This is why our staff continues to visit students—even during their time off.
It is when students meet with their strongest attacks that they need to hear the truth.
What is Underground Technology (UT)?
Nearly 80 percent of those who leave North Korea are women. The majority of those have had some kind of traumatic encounter related to human trafficking or abuse. When they come to South Korea, few churches know how to relate, let alone help. Often in an effort to do good, churches and social programs regard these women simply as victims and recipients of services. Voice of the Martyrs Korea takes a different approach. We see these women as amazing, creative, and powerful. How else could they have successfully escaped the most brutal and repressive regime on earth and then survived and triumphed over sex traffickers, abusers, and underground police, all while traveling three thousand miles across countries whose languages they do not speak, even while they had no money and were caring for children or parents or other refugees? Our goal is to help them grow in relationship to the God they met along the way—the God who has an even more exciting adventure for them in the future.
Underground Technology (UT) is our six month school where those adventures are born. It is a personal discipleship program where female and male North Korean Christian defectors are trained in five key areas to equip them for the next stage of their journey: 1) Academic success; 2) Life skills; 3) Character formation; 4) Relationship development; and 5) Spiritual foundation. Through field trips, internships, classroom education, volunteering and one-on-one coaching and counseling, they not only receive care for the hurts they have sustained; more than that, at UT they learn to care for others—especially those in their immediate sphere of influence, like their family members in South Korea and North Korea.
Testimony From a Current UT Student
Ms. Han’s friend was shocked. She could hardly recognize Ms. Han. It wasn’t that Ms. Han had gotten her hair cut or lost weight. It wasn’t even that she hadn’t seen Ms. Han in a while. After all, the two met together every Sunday. The difference was that Ms. Han wore a genuine, confident smile on her face.
Like many North Koreans, Ms. Han had, understandably, wrestled with fear on a regular basis. She had also, understandably, tried to keep this fear to herself. Who cared enough about her to ease the burden of her fears? Who could possibly understand the struggles she faced? It wasn’t until Ms. Han attended UT that she was given an answer to her questions: not only does God care enough, but God understands her most harrowing experiences. After all, God was there with her.
Every week, VOMK staff members and volunteers travel to the UT student’s homes. This not only gives the students a chance to practice mirroring God by hosting the very people the student was raised to fear and hate (North Koreans are taught that the South Koreans and Americans hate them), but it also gives the students a chance to open up about the challenges they face.
“I feel blessed when you come to visit me,” one UT student told the staff that visited her. “I love to share what I have with everyone. One day, I hope I can share my house with the whole UT class!”
This particular student had been struggling with fear all her life. She assured us that she felt blessed to have made it to South Korea. Life in South Korea came equipped with its own toil and trouble, but life in North Korea was almost unbearable. There was no money and so her son had to steal and lie in order to survive. Every day, this student would fear for her son’s life. Even a knock at the door would tug at her nerves: anything could be a sign that her son had been found out and killed.
However, this student did not leave her fears behind when she left Nouth Korea. Her son still lives in North Korea and she spends every day fearing for his life. This student admitted to us that she feared she would never see her son again. By sharing this fear, this student handed it over to God.
Not only were our staff members able to pray for her, but her fellow students were able to pray for her as well. And when these students heard about her sorrow, they opened up about their own. Several students also had sons and daughters that still lived in North Korea. Several were afraid they would never be able to see their children again, either.
Yet after we prayed, the students did not gather together and cry. They smiled together and comforted one another. When fear is hidden, it becomes despair. However, when fear is shared, it becomes hope.
What do you teach at UT?
We use a variety of resources, but the Prasso materials are foundational to UT. Prasso is the Greek word meaning "to practice" and it is designed to help ordinary Christians learn to practice the Bible in the everyday events of their lives.
In addition, instructors from all over the world who are among the most well-regarded in their fields of practice teach both in person and via videoconference. UT students learn what the “ordinary” Christian life is all about, and they get to see how that is practiced around the world.
All of our teaching materials are specifically adapted for North Koreans. For example, North Korean people are used to criticizing one another and thinking negatively about each other's talents. This is how they were educated and required to behave in North Korea. In UT, students learn how to change their sinful thoughts and habits into godly ones. Students learn how to encourage one another and to regard each other with charitable judgment. They learn to pray for people other than themselves. This simple activity is an important corrective to North Korea's "self-criticism" meetings.
What kind of field trips do you do with the UT students?
We recently took UT students to the Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery. This cemetery is a place where foreign missionaries' compassion and love for Korea is kept alive. This is particularly important for our North Korean students, because it was in the northern part of pre-war Korea that missionaries first found the greatest acceptance. North Korea was a missionary launching pad for the gospel as it went across Korea and Northeast China.
When the UT students lived in North Korea, they heard these same missionaries were American imperialists who were very cruel and evil. A field trip like this not only challenges their long-held assumptions, but also encourages them not to get too comfortable in South Korea, but instead be ready to serve God in everything they do.
What kinds of volunteer activities do UT students do?
The UT students are regularly involved with everything from launching balloons to packing up North Korean Bibles for distribution. Serving others is an extremely important part of the UT training, because from the moment defectors enter South Korea they are only taught to receive. This "receiving" mentality stunts their Christian growth. A regular program of volunteering and serving is needed to help the students grow to fullness in Christ.
These ministry opportunities are normally denied to many NK defector men and women, but they are essential to helping them to understand about the God who takes the stone the builders have rejected and makes it the cornerstone—in this case, the cornerstone of new, God-centered leadership in the North Korean defector community and in North Korea itself.
How can I send a message of encouragement to UT students?
Teachers in North Korea teach schoolchildren to hate Westerners (and especially Americans), and they are taught that those in America and the West hate them and seek to do them harm. Thus, when UT students receive a card from you, they express wonderment at this barrier-breaking element of the Body of Christ. You can of course write in English, as our staff and volunteers happily provide a basic translation of the contents. We encourage you to mail cards to the Voice of the Martyrs, and we will hand-deliver them to UT students in Korea.
Please include a picture of yourself - the UT students love to see who is praying for them! Please include a Scripture verse for them. These are easy for our volunteers to translate.
Please include a sentence or two of your own encouraging words. If the contents of your card are too long, the translation will take too long for our volunteers.
236-1 Duck Seong Building - 1st Floor
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Can I set up a pen pal relationship with a UT student?
Sorry, but thanks for understanding. Confidentiality is of the utmost importance to us and to the students. That’s because students have family members still inside North Korea, and those family members are punished by the North Korean government for the students’ “sin” of defecting. That’s why we release no details about the students and why students are very protective of their privacy. A message of encouragement to all the students is the best pen pal note you can send!
What happens after a student graduates from UT?
Graduates of the UT program are eligible to enroll in the Underground University program. UT students are an excellent source of candidates for Underground University.