SEOUL—A lone defector from North Korea has begun wafting balloons over the country laden with face masks, medicine and vitamin pills rather than the leaflets that he previously rained down on the North in defiance of government attempts to stop him.
“People are dying because of COVID in North Korea,” Park Sang-hak, who defected from North Korea to South Korea more than 20 years ago, told The Daily Beast. “That’s the top priority. Right now, hundreds of thousands are getting the virus, and thousands are dying every day.”
Park, who runs an organization called Fighters for Free Korea, said the need to aid people in the North in the fight against the disease explains why he’s again launching balloons, though he still faces charges for breaking a law imposed by the previous liberal government. The law remains on the books, but he’s confident that under the conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol, he won’t be arrested again.
“The law is still there, but they’re not going to try to enforce it,” he said. “The current president as a candidate stated that he opposed this anti-leaflet law.”
On Sunday, with the authorities well aware of what he was doing, Park said that no one tried to stop him as he fired off balloons carrying 20,000 masks, 15,000 Tylenol pills and 30,000 vitamin C pills from a mountainous area near the line with North Korea . “Of course, the police were not there,” Park said. “If they saw me, they would have had to arrest me.”
Technically, Park could face a two-year prison sentence and a hefty fine, but authorities appear to be looking the other way. They have not yet pressed charges already brought against him in April for launching balloons that dispersed a million leaflets over the North full of the kind of articles that have drawn threats of retaliation.
Park said, however, that he decided not to deluge the North with leaflets on the evils of the Kim dynasty that has ruled North Korea since the end of World War II or the regime of Kim Jong Un, grandson of founder Kim Il Sung.
The only propaganda that’s included in the balloon drops is a 78-page treatise on South Korea as a prosperous country along with American dollar bills as symbols of the capitalist South’s alliance with the US The treatise, by a professor now in his 90’s, who defected From North Korea decades ago, bears the intriguing title “From an eel to a dragon” to describe South Korea’s rise to economic stardom.
In a conversation conducted via Skype and interpreted by one of Park’s friends, he talked about the desperation of those whom he’s trying to help. “COVID is spreading,” Park said. “Previously they said there are no cases at all. Now they say they don’t need help. Moon, when he was president, offered emergency aid. They didn’t acknowledge his offer.”
Instead, said Park, “they fire missiles,” and by June 25, the anniversary of the North Korean invasion of the South in 1950, “they may conduct another nuclear test.”
Park said his campaign is the only way to get foreign aid into North Korea while Kim Jong Un keeps the borders closed to all foreign assistance except for limited shipments from China. He believes the regime has covered up the extent of the pandemic, claiming success in conquering it while reporting fewer than 100 deaths, a figure that’s widely believed to vastly underestimate the number who’ve died.
Park’s success in renewing his balloon campaign is just another sign of the shift in policy under President Yoon from appeasement to confrontation. Moon, during his five years as president, seek to bring about reconciliation with Kim Jong Un, whom he saw three times in 2018 but who cut off communications after the failure of his 2019 summit in Hanoi with Donald Trump.
Moon pushed through the anti-balloon law as a major step on the way to North-South reconciliation after the North threatened to fire across the border at the launch sites. “When Moon was president, he had me arrested,” said Park. “They investigated my mother. They tried hard to make a case against me.”
Ultimately, even before Moon’s term ended in May, the case proved an embarrassment for the government.
“International opinion was on our side,” he said. We wrote letters. All that pressure from outside was too much. They really could not enforce the law even then.”
Now, he said “the position of the new president and new unification minister is they don’t need to enforce the law.”