When it comes to human rights and religious freedom, North Korea is the worst of the worst.
For Christians, the price of belief in God could mean death.
One human rights group is taking action with an unusual aerial offensive to encourage the country's secret believers.
Target: North Korea
Just before sunset, a vanload of undercover Christians from Seoul heads north. For their protection, CBN News concealed both their faces and names.
"What we are doing could get us into trouble," one Christian named "Peter" said.
"We are going here some four miles from the North Korean border and close to the Demilitarized Zone," he told CBN News.
The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, is one of the most heavily fortified and potentially dangerous places on earth.
One million armed North Korean troops stand ready on their side of the DMZ; the South has just as many.
One factor that could ruin the whole excursion—the weather.
"One slight change in the wind direction could mess up the mission," Peter said.
Peter dubbed the mission Operation Dandelion. "We started this project back in 1991, and just as a dandelion needs the wind to spread its seeds, we need the wind to spread the message," Peter explained.
That message is the Word of God printed in the Korean language on thousands of bright orange balloons.
"It's almost impossible to get Bibles into North Korea, so using balloons is one of the most effective ways to share the gospel," Peter said.
A tank in the back of the van pumps helium into the balloons. The team works quickly, all the time keeping tabs on the wind direction.
Prayers are whispered—then the release. A few minutes later the balloons begin their slow drift across North Korean airspace.
"By sending these balloons, we let our North Korean brothers and sisters know that we are praying for them and the Scriptures on the balloons are meant to encourage them," one undercover believer said.
How it All Began
The earnest prayers began at an undisclosed location in Seoul.
Every week since 1991, 78-year-old Oh Mo Duk, along with a handful of other believers, has been preparing each balloon for the flight into North Korea.
"I was born in North Korea. This is my way of helping to get the gospel back to my countrymen," she told CBN News.
This is how the balloon Bible smuggling works: A hole in the balloon is filled with helium. A strip of tape is placed around it and then of it goes into the skies of North Korea.
"The helium will leak out of the balloon and eventually fall to the ground," Duk explained. "And when someone picks it up, they'll be able to read all 16 chapters of the book of Mark."
In the past, Peter used boats with other groups to launch balloon offensives from the sea. These balloons are larger and contain a small radio, a Bible and other Christian literature.
"OK, this is not the most sophisticated or high-tech method," he acknowledged. "But when you are dealing with a country that is restricted, very secretive and punishes its citizens, we have to try something to get hope to them."
In addition to the balloon operation, Peter's group organizes a weekly radio broadcast that's recorded in Seoul, then transmitted over medium and shortwave frequencies into North Korea.
"The radio broadcast is like a regular church service with worship and preaching of the Word," explained one believer, who coordinates the broadcast.
"The North Korean government routinely tries to jam our signal, but we have other methods of getting the message across," the person said.
Execution of Christians
CBN News obtained audio recordings and photographs of secret underground church meetings inside North Korea.
"Father! Father! The descendants of the martyrs in blood are all alive even now," one Christian prayed. "My Father! I know the Spirit of the Lord will come to restore and deliver."
"When a North Korean accepts Jesus Christ, he or she will face persecution, imprisonment and possibly death because of their faith," Peter said.
Peter gave CBN News footage that apparently aired on a Japanese television channel allegedly showing the execution of North Korean Christians.
The footage shows a North Korean guard yelling, "I hereby declare that the accused is sentenced to death. The death penalty must be executed at once. Ready! Fire! Fire!'"
'They Need Our Prayers'
Trying to get precise figures on the number of Christians today in North Korea is extremely difficult.
"Based on data gathered from North Korean defectors and international human rights groups we estimate there are approximately 30,000 Christians being held in political prison camps and about 10,000 underground believers who are in hiding throughout the country," Dr. Lim Chang Ho, with Kosin University, said.
Pressing Toward the Mark
Back along a stretch of the North-South Korean border, it's a little past midnight.
Using the cover of darkness, Peter's team continues to deploy hundreds of balloons at multiple locations. Today the wind conditions have been good.
"Often the winds will suddenly change and we have to wait," Peter explained. "Sometimes we come back the next day, but we are persistent," he continued. "People's lives are on the line.
"We will continue do this and continue to pray until North Korea is free and the Christians can worship Jesus Christ without fear," he vowed.