It was a cloudy July night with a full moon, shortly before midnight, when we arrived at our destination near the Han river estuary. Park Sang-hak, baseball cap clamped on his head and clad all in black, worked with his brother and their two wives to pile up on the ground bulging plastic bags filled with leaflets, booklets, sweets, soap operas, satirical films and cash. Then he called for our van lights to be turned on and focused on the team as they silently filled balloons about 12 metres long with hydrogen, then let them loose to sail over the nearby North Korean border.
There were ten balloons in total, constructed from agricultural tubes of polythene. Each one carried three bags, filled with about 5,000 leaflets providing information intended to penetrate the lies of the North Korean propaganda machine. They soared into the sky surprisingly fast, soon disappearing from sight, one trailing a satirical cartoon of the ‘supreme leader’ Kim Jong-Un. “Obviously, we have no idea how many get in,” Park admitted, before adding that he was confident enough that some of them would make it across the border and into the arms of citizens in the world’s most bunkered state.
Park is a remarkable and resolute man. Once he was a rising young bureaucrat from a well-connected family, a fervent believer in the Kim family dynasty that has ruled North Korea for more than seven decades. Today he is public enemy number one in the North, having fled to the South and dedicated his life to defeating the brutal regime that brainwashed him along with 25 million other citizens. He has survived assassination attempts, death threats and even missile responses to these nocturnal launches of clandestine materials. In recent days, he has been denounced again as ‘human scum’.
Yet he is also detested by South Korean authorities who see this diminutive dissident as a danger to their stability. They have launched legal actions and legislative efforts to thwart his activism. And now he is at the centre of rising tensions in the region.
First Kim Jong-Un’s government raged that sending over such seditious information “dared to hurt the dignity of our supreme leadership” and was “provocation graver than gun and artillery fire”. Then came dark warnings of drastic action, the breaking of communication links with Seoul and now destruction of a joint liaison office near the border town of Kaesong.
This explosive move, coming hours after warnings of military action in response to the South “stoking a confrontational atmosphere”, has sent waves of concern around the fragile region again. Russia called for restraint; the United States reiterated its support for Seoul. Meanwhile, the South Korean government — which had staked significant political capital on its latest bid to seduce Pyongyang’s dynastic dictatorship — said the demolition wrecked fading hopes of a peace settlement on the peninsula.
As ever with North Korea, it is hard to determine precisely what is going on. Kim Yo-jong, the increasingly-visible younger sister of Pyongyang’s leader, blamed Moon for putting “his neck into the noose of pro-US flunkyism”. Clearly ‘sunshine policies’ — to pursue peace and an arms control deal with Pyongyang — led by Donald Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in have come to an entirely predictable halt.
Analysts believe it may just be another manufactured crisis to extract some cash and concessions. As one said, there is a weary cycle in which the north pretends it wants peace while it pockets aid and sorts out internal issues before returning to belligerence.
Certainly it seems the action has blown up the Panmunjom declaration, signed by the two Korean leaders two years ago, in which they agreed to cease ‘hostile acts.’ South Korea has warned it will not accept any more hostile activity. It shows also the failure of the talks on Pyongyang’s missile programmes after that high-profile summit last year between Trump and Kim. And it is always worth remembering two key points when watching events here: first, that the Korean War — used by three generations of the Kim family to justify their paranoid stand against the world — has technically not ended after the 1953 armistice. And second, that five of the world’s biggest armies hover around this divided peninsula dangling beneath China.
Yet the North’s fury also indicates the success of the activities pursued by Park and other dissident groups as they send in contraband to corrode the hermit kingdom from within by undermining belief in the bloodstained Kim dictatorship. I have heard from several dissidents about how they would watch foreign soap operas and films secretly to see the clothes, the cars and the food that strongly challenged their own government’s claims about life being so much better under their thumb. I also met a woman jailed for eight years for watching foreign films, and a party cadre — a member of the state censorship team — who defected after being caught sharing seized books and films with his friends.
Indeed Park himself is proof of the success of such a strategy. When we first met four years ago he told me how his eyes were partially opened to the outside world after a leaflet fell from the sky as he walked around a square in the port of Wonsan. “All the flyers fell at once,” he told me. “There were about 800 people and just five security people so I grabbed one and put it in my pocket. My friend was too scared but we read it together. The most important information was that it said people in North Korea had escaped to China.”
Park defected at the start of this century with help of his father. Three years later he became determined to bring down the regime, after learning that his fiancée had been hideously beaten for two months and two uncles had been murdered in retaliation for his escape. “I had to do something,” he told me. “I was mad that these innocent people had been tortured and killed.”
I met him first through the US-based Human Rights Foundation, which has funded such subversive activities for several years, sending in more than 50 million hours of reading material. Alex Gladstein, the group’s chief strategy officer, said:
“Pyongyang shows with its actions that it fears Mr Park’s leaflets, which carry the truth and information about the outside world. His efforts are peaceful, creative and effective. They should be met with support by the Moon administration, not indifference — and certainly not punitive action. Sadly it appears they are firmly against human rights advocacy.”
Park’s most recent batch of balloons containing half a million leaflets was fired off at the end of last month, amid suspicions the pandemic has hurt North Korea’s fragile economy and rumours the obese Kim Jong-un has been struggling with illness. Other activists use drones to fly in memory sticks loaded with Bibles, books and films; or pay border guards and smugglers to take in banned data and electronic equipment. The risks are big: Kim tightened controls with threats of execution for people aiding illegal crossings and substantial rewards for soldiers who stop them.
President Moon has promised a crackdown on such efforts and tried to sue Park and his brother, to the anger of the conservative opposition party. Yet many of his countrymen look down at dissidents and show little interest in the suffering of North Koreans trapped in the bubble of the world’s most barbaric state. The balloon launches also infuriate people living near the border when they fall short and spew rubbish over homes in the area — although satellite trackers found some flew almost 500 miles to Vladivostok in Russia.
Yet Park remains set on his path. “South Korea is gagging us, who are its citizens, while kowtowing to the evil regime in the North,” he said. “The more they suppress us, the more leaflets we will send.”