For de­fec­tor from the north, bal­loons carry mes­sage of hope

JoongAng Daily - - Opinion & Perspective - BY BAE MYUNG-BOK bong­moon@joongang.co.kr

North Korean de­fec­tor Lee Min-bok starts his day by check­ing the fore­cast pro­vided by the Korea Avi­a­tion Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Agency. From time to time, he re­leases bal­loons to North Korea as part of the Cam­paign for Help­ing North Korean in Di­rect Way.

When the air at 10,000 feet flows to the north, he drives his truck loaded with hy­dro­gen can­is­ters and large bal­loons to the bor­der. The bal­loons carry DVDs, USB sticks, one-dol­lar bills, medicine and food.

Lee has sent about 8,000 bal­loons with timers he de­signed him­self, which blow the bal­loons and spread the leaflets. He is also cer­ti­fied to use high­pres­sure hy­dro­gen.

Lee, born in Hwang­hae Prov­ince in North Korea in 1957, worked as a sci­en­tific re­searcher. He de­fected from the North in 1990, but was sent back the same year. He es­caped again in 1991, and four years later be­came the first UN refugee to land in South Korea.

He ar­rived for the in­ter­view with two body­guards. Four po­lice­men have been guard­ing him 24/7 since 2008, when he was added to North Korea’s hit list.

“Some say it is a se­cu­rity mea­sure fit for a prime min­is­ter,” said Lee. “But I had to give up my pri­vacy in­stead.”

Lee now lives in a shipping con­tainer. His wife couldn’t stand it and de­manded a di­vorce. Q. North Korea put you on its hit list, say­ing you could die any­where and any­time. A. I’m not wor­ried. It only means that my bal­loons work. loons in July 2005 and send about 1,000 to 1,500 of them a year. I think I have flown about 400 mil­lion leaflets.

I be­gan send­ing bal­loons to North Korea in 2003. At first they were rub­ber bal­loons, so they didn’t last long or fly far­ther into the North. So I de­cided to make big­ger bal­loons on my own. When I asked psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare of­fi­cials of the Min­istry of Na­tional De­fense, they said they needed to charge about 3 mil­lion won [$2,765] per bal­loon. Then I made bal­loons with plas­tic and it cost 100,000 won per bal­loon, in­clud­ing the con­tents. I taught it to oth­ers and now ev­ery­one is us­ing this type of bal­loon. How do you af­ford the large ex­pense?

There are peo­ple spon­sor­ing us, and we write their names on the bal­loons, take pic­tures of them and send them to the spon­sors to ex­press our grat­i­tude.

I can show you the ledger. There is no money com­ing from the gov­ern­ment.

I re­ceive about 10 per­cent of the spon­sor funds as com­pen­sa­tion for my la­bor. One of your bal­loons re­cently could have started an en­gage­ment be­tween the North and the South. Haven’t you thought that what you are do­ing could start a war?

I al­ready thought of it and sug­gested the gov­ern­ment pro­hibit send­ing up such bal­loons pub­licly. And some or­ga­ni­za­tions still no­tify the gov­ern­ment of the time and venue in ad­vance to show their ac­tiv­i­ties. I’m al­ways do­ing it se­cretly.

The re­cent en­gage­ment oc­curred be­cause one of the bal­loons I sent up on Oct. 10 lacked gas and flew low. I just hope it will be an op­por­tu­nity to cor­rect in­ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tiv­i­ties of other or­ga­ni­za­tions. Some of those or­ga­ni­za­tions said they will stop fly­ing the bal­loons. Are you go­ing to keep do­ing it?

Sure. It is a cam­paign for hu­man rights and it con­forms to con­sti­tu­tional law. It does no harm to any­one if we keep it a se­cret. I don’t mean to pro­voke North Korea by neg­a­tive at­tacks. North Korea will col­lapse if we just keep prop­a­gat­ing pure facts. You re­cently filed a law­suit against the gov­ern­ment claim­ing your free­dom of ex­pres­sion was vi­o­lated. How does the gov­ern­ment vi­o­late your right when you do it se­cretly?

Be­cause po­lice­men are guard­ing me, my ev­ery move is re­ported. Lo­cal po­lice and mil­i­tary are no­ti­fied when I go out to fly the bal­loons. They are not in­ter­ested in uni­fi­ca­tion, but only want to make sure noth­ing bad hap­pens in their ju­ris­dic­tions.

There is no ba­sis for them to stop me, so they just put up no­ti­fi­ca­tions that say they will not take re­spon­si­bil­ity. Then lo­cal res­i­dents come to me to protest. I filed the law­suit be­cause au­thor­i­ties dis­turb my work any way they can. Was the sit­u­a­tion dif­fer­ent un­der pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions?

The Roh Moo-hyun gov­ern­ment did not care about it at all. There were no guards and peo­ple were sen­si­tive about in­spec­tions of civil­ians. That was the time I was most ac­tive in fly­ing bal­loons to the North.

Writ­ing them is the most dif­fi­cult job. The writ­ing should be per­fect so that North Korea can­not re­spond. I deeply think about it and an­tic­i­pate not just one but three moves ahead. I’m com­pletely iden­ti­fy­ing my­self on the leaflets with my email ad­dress and phone num­ber. On the leaflet, I write how I knew about and came to South Korea, and what it is like here. Are you say­ing you are go­ing to en­lighten those who are liv­ing in the North?

Res­i­dents of North Korea are be­ing dragged to the cliff with their eyes and ears shut. The hu­man­i­tar­ian mea­sures that will keep them from fall­ing will be the leaflets. We are all kin, but we are fight­ing against each other.

North Korea asks why South Korea had Americans kill their kin, but it is North Korea that ac­tu­ally pro­voked South Korea first. I’m try­ing to tell the North Kore­ans that the United States freed us and South Korea is a vic­tim. What do you think of Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye say­ing uni­fi­ca­tion would be a bo­nanza?

If you want uni­fi­ca­tion, you should for­get “uni­fi­ca­tion ex­pense.” No one wor­ries about uni­fi­ca­tion ex­pense when in­vest­ing in China. You should think of North Korea as a for­eign coun­try just like China, and the idea does not deny that we are in the same eth­nic group. La­bor costs, for ex­am­ple, would be one of our ben­e­fits. The word “uni­fi­ca­tion ex­pense” is shoo­ing peo­ple away. They should change it to “uni­fi­ca­tion in­vest­ment.” Korea may be a more pow­er­ful way to en­lighten North Kore­ans.

I am a sci­en­tist and I be­lieved I had some­thing else to do. When North Korea col­lapses, all prob­lems, in­clud­ing hu­man rights and nu­clear weapons, will be solved. I’m happy be­cause I’m do­ing what I want. I think I’m the per­son who set­tled down in South Korea the best.

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