The No-Tech Tactics of North Korea's Most Wanted Defector
Park Sang Hak rides in a minivan down the highway, speeding past signs for Pyongyang. “That’s North Korea, over there,” he says, pointing past a razor wire fence, across the Imjin estuary, to a pastoral green landscape beyond. The van pulls into a parking lot, where Park greets the rest of his team from the Fighters for a Free North Korea (FFNK). They are all defectors from the North. There are his mother, his sister-in-law, and his wife, who wears a purple anorak and matching full-face plastic visor to protect her from the sun. At the wheel of a small blue cargo truck is his younger brother. Marching across the asphalt at double time are members of a like-minded volunteer group, the People’s Liberation Front (PLF), six men and three women who represent the shock troops in the day’s operation. Former officers in the North Korean army, clad in berets and gray-camouflage fatigues, they’d seem more intimidating if the women’s combat boots did not have high heels.
Park has spent the past 10 years trying to end decades of totalitarian rule in North Korea. The principal weapons in his campaign against the Kim dynasty and its myrmidons in Pyongyang? Balloons.
A cold wind cuts across the parking lot as Park oversees launch preparations. A truck bearing scarlet cylinders of hydrogen pulls up. From the cargo van, PLF members help unpack boxes of balloons and 20 plastic bags filled with a mixture of DVDs, U.S. dollar bills, and booklets. Each bag weighs no more than 10 kilograms (22 pounds): the maximum payload of a single balloon. In all there are 200,000 two-page leaflets, printed in close-set type and made of featherweight polyvinyl, as light as tissue paper but waterproof.
One pamphlet bears the first 10 articles of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Another denounces the Kim dynasty. The bags are secured by a tube containing a chemically operated timer; when the balloon has been aloft long enough, the bags will fall open, dispensing Park’s messages from the sky above the North.
“North Korea is surrounded by an iron curtain, so information can’t get in,” Park says. “But this way, using the sky, it can’t be stopped.” By breaking the information blockade around the North, Park hopes to encourage his former countrymen to overthrow their leaders. “We can raise their consciousness and leave it up to them to decide whether to fight or not.”
Park’s mother and sister-in-law tie two bundles of leaflets to each balloon and, with a screech of high-pressure gas, fill them with hydrogen. The balloons, 33 feet long and 7 feet wide, lift slowly into the air, some bearing slogans in colored Korean characters. The PLF wrangle each one across the asphalt, the wind swiping at their backs as they wait for the signal to launch. Park struggles to tie a banner—a cartoon depicting a sweaty Kim Jong Un clutching a nuclear missile like a toddler gripping a security blanket—to the tail of the last balloon. Then he gives his final orders.
“Concentrate! Focus!” he shouts. “Together! One, two—” Five balloons rocket skyward, midday light flashing off their transparent plastic envelopes, the bundles of propaganda spinning on their cables. Rising swiftly, taken by the wind, they grow smaller and smaller until they’re swallowed by the glare of the sun. If everything goes as planned, they’ll be over Pyongyang in four hours.
Park, 46, is slight and wiry, with a thick wedge of black hair and an aura of nervous energy. When he leaves his home in a southern suburb of Seoul, he’s usually accompanied by one or two plainclothes police detectives, who chauffeur him around in a modest four-door Hyundai. He receives regular death threats—by e-mail, phone, and, with a flair for the anachronistic that seems uniquely North Korean, fax. “The country code is always from China,” Park says. But he knows who’s paying the bill. Since he began launching balloons in 2004, his exploits have made him such an irritant to the Pyongyang regime that five years ago North Korean state television anointed him Target Zero, above even No. 1 on its hit list of enemies of the state.
“I’ve been on TV 500 times in three years,” he says. People recognize him in restaurants, and he has to disguise himself when he goes hiking. He likes to say he’s as much of a celebrity in South Korea as he is in the North. When I ask if he receives government funding, he laughs. Each launched balloon costs about $500, but unlike other defector groups, the FFNK receives no money from the state. “No, we have a couple of hundred people who give us 5 or 10 dollars a month. None of the people who donate to us are rich.”
Three years ago a fellow defector called, offering to broker a meeting with a supporter who could provide funding for launches. The South Korean National Intelligence Service told him it was a trap and ended up capturing four men at the rendezvous point, a subway station in Seoul. One of them, a defector known only as Ahn, had served in the North Korean special forces and was carrying an arsenal of assassination gadgets, including a miniature flashlight that fired bullets, a pen that shot steel darts, and another containing a needle that delivered a lethal toxin. Ahn later admitted to having been paid $12,000 by the North Koreans to murder Park. They’d threatened to harm his family if he didn’t go through with it.
Park remains unfazed about the prospect of dying for his cause. He knows he’s doing a good job when the number of plainclothes men around him doubles, as it does from time to time. If the agents of Pyongyang do finally get him, he says, someone else will carry on launching balloons. “Even if Park Sang Hak was killed,” he says, “there will be Park Sang Hak numbers two and three.”
In North Korea, Park’s father, Park Gun Hee, was a member of the ruling Worker’s Party, a senior official in the regime’s Science and Technology Bureau, and later, a general in the 35th Bureau, North Korea’s foreign intelligence agency. The eldest of three children, Sang Hak was born in the mountain city of Hyesan, which faces China across the Yalu River. In places near his home, the banks of the Yalu were only 65 feet apart, so as a teenager Park could share shouted conversations with citizens of Changbai, across the water in China. In the early 1980s he noticed changes in Changbai: Crude huts were being replaced by well-built concrete houses. When Park asked his foreign neighbors what was going on, they credited Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. In the winter of 1985, when he turned 17, Park walked across the frozen river and wandered the streets of Changbai. He was shocked to see people wearing American clothes and talking with admiration about the U.S.
At 18, Park moved to Pyongyang to study electrical engineering. In 1992 he saw his first leaflets from the South. He and his graduating university class were on a trip in Wonsan, a port on the Sea of Japan, when they caught sight of two huge spherical balloons, 30 to 50 feet across, floating toward them, hundreds of feet in the air. They were propaganda balloons, which the government in Seoul had been sending over the border for decades. As Park watched, one balloon drifted away, but the second kept coming. When it was just overhead there was a loud bang, and hundreds of leaflets drifted down from the sky, papering the public square around them. Soldiers tried to stop the crowds from picking up the leaflets, but there was too much paper and too many people.
Reading a leaflet later that night, Park discovered pictures of bikini-clad girls cavorting on the beach at Busan—and also news of Kang Chol Hwan and An Hyuk, former prisoners in North Korea’s infamous Yodok concentration camp who’d recently defected.
After a six-month postgraduate course in propaganda techniques, he landed an excellent job in the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League. While private ownership of a car was unthinkable even for a party member, the department nonetheless gave him full-time use of a rather nice Toyota Crown, which he was allowed to keep at home. He loved his work. He got engaged. His prospects looked superb.
Under the Pyongyang regime, watching unsanctioned foreign media was illegal, and offenders were sent to the gulag. Government censors staged raids on homes across the country to seize movies and recordings. According to Kim Hueng Kang, director of North Korean Intellectuals Solidarity, a research group of academics, engineers, and doctors who have defected to the South, before each raid the censors would cut off electricity to entire villages to trap tapes and discs in the machines where they were playing. North Korean citizens began keeping two radios at home—one to show the censors, the other to listen to—and they powered CD players with car batteries and generators to dodge the tactics of the secret police.
By the end of 1993 even the most well-insulated North Korean nomenklatura couldn’t fail to see that something had gone quite wrong. The end of Soviet aid, a series of natural disasters, a famine, and the failings of the planned economy transformed the misfortunes of life under the Kim regime into a national catastrophe. Park Gun Hee, who by then was posted in Tokyo, warned his son that things would have to change. “My father began telling me that this was a state that was going to collapse, and if it’s not going to collapse imminently, it’s one that we have to escape from,” Park says.
In the early hours of Aug. 21, 1999, Park, along with his brother, sister, and mother, held hands and waded into the Yalu in Hyesan. He left his fiancée behind. From China, they flew on counterfeit passports to Seoul, where they were met by South Korean intelligence agents. On the drive from Gimpo Airport, Park was surprised by the sight of so many cars streaming into the city, down the expressways that ribboned across the landscape. Amazing, he thought, that there were so many elite members of the party with cars to drive to work every morning. “Even then,” he says, “I didn’t quite grasp the situation in South Korea.”
Park got a job in the mobile technology research department of Seoul National University. The government was thoughtful enough to find him a position that took into account his engineering background—though perhaps not in exactly the kind of role he’d have liked. The job was in human resources. It turned out that everything he’d learned at Pyongyang’s most prestigious technical institute was 20 years out of date.
Park lived comfortably in Seoul for three years before he found activism. He’d remained ignorant of what had become of his extended family left behind in the North until another defector from Hyesan contacted him in Seoul in February 2003. In the weeks after his flight, Park was told, the authorities had sent his two uncles to a gulag, where they were executed. His cousins had been left to fend for themselves on the street. (Park’s father remained in Japan.)
Park quit his job and teamed up with the defectors he’d read about as a student, An and Kang. Together they formed a pressure group to draw attention to the fate of North Koreans. They traveled to the U.S. and testified before Congress about the camp system and the Kim regime. Park took part in protests in Tokyo and Seoul; he was arrested after sneaking into a summit meeting and throwing a water bottle at a North Korean delegate, hitting him in the head. But Park wanted to do more. “It’s good to go to Washington, D.C., and stage protests. We can talk all we want. But I felt that we needed to send information directly to the people of North Korea.”
In June 2004, at the peak of the South Korean government’s long-running Sunshine Policy, which was designed to foster better relations with the regime in Pyongyang, the South declared a moratorium on its propaganda efforts—radio broadcasts, billboards, chains of blaring loudspeakers that faced counterparts of the North across the DMZ, and the leaflet-bearing balloon flights Park had seen as a student. Park was not interested in a Sunshine Policy, and he resolved to pick up where the South Korean state had left off.
His first effort was unsophisticated: Park bought 500 children’s party balloons from a stationery store near his house and filled them with helium in a park on the banks of the Imjin River. Each balloon carried two pieces of paper bearing messages. He has no idea where they ended up. He was happy enough to see them begin drifting north.
Later, Park began asking around about how the government had run its aerial propaganda. He had a meeting with a member of the psychological warfare department at the South Korean Defense Ministry. He was disappointed to discover that the factory that had manufactured the blimps had stopped production. That’s when he came up with the idea of using double-walled greenhouse plastic to make cigar-shaped balloons: “It’s very cheap, very economical, and very sturdy,” Park says. “I should get a patent.”
He began staging weekly launches between March and early June, when the winds blow from the south. The balloons carried leaflets and small radios with which North Koreans might receive the broadcasts of defector radio stations from the South. The campaign was controversial: Park was accused of undermining the progress in North-South relations made by the South Korean Ministry of Unification and the Sunshine Policy. When police intervened to stop the launches, he carried on in secret.
But it wasn’t until September 2008 that anyone else paid Park much attention. He was among 10 dissidents from around the world invited to lunch at the White House with George W. Bush. That’s when Pyongyang started taking him seriously and the death threats began. At bilateral military talks soon after his trip to Washington, the North Korean delegation protested the launches by Park and other defector groups; they brought boxes of his leaflets to the meetings and threatened sanctions if Park wasn’t stopped and prosecuted. The Ministry of Unification urged Park to comply but couldn’t stop him.
He supplemented his cargo with USB memory sticks carrying videos, including one of a musical about the camp at Yodok and another about Samsung, Hyundai, and the South’s economic prosperity. He added dollar bills—as many as 1,000 in a single launch—to his “paper bombs” of leaflets insulting Kim Jong Il. Following news that the Dear Leader had suffered a stroke, an increasingly sensitive North mobilized troops to collect the scattered flyers.
In December 2008, as Park prepared to launch another 10 balloons across the Imjin, a group of progressive South Korean protesters turned out to stop him, and things turned ugly. One of Park’s team was hospitalized after being hit with a wrench; a reporter from the Washington Post saw Park kick a protester in the head as he was trying to tear open a bag of leaflets. Park fired a shot from a tear-gas gun into the air before police took it from him. He managed to get just one balloon airborne that day but returned the next day for a more successful effort—overseen by 200 policemen.
In early 2010, Pyongyang warned it would target artillery strikes at any area used to launch leaflet balloons from the South, but Park persisted. He sent over rap videos on DVD that depicted Kim Il Sung as a transvestite in stilettos and a bustier and as an obese Elvis impersonator. His launch events were increasingly well-attended by the media. “Some even wore bulletproof vests,” he says. Local residents said fears of artillery attack were affecting tourism; Imjin restaurants reported that their revenue was off by half. Following the death of Hwang Jang Yop, the architect of North Korean state ideology and the most senior defector yet to escape from Pyongyang, Park found himself elevated to Target Zero. Last year, U.S.-based NGO the Human Rights Foundation awarded Park the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent for his efforts.
And still, it’s almost impossible to tell if the cargo reaches its targets. To predict flight paths, Park uses meteorological models, which can be unreliable. At least one launch has seen his balloons blow due south and dispense their messages over Seoul. Park counters that defectors who make it to the South tell him they saw his messages before they left; he has received reports of the leaflets falling over Pyongyang and further east.
Kim of North Korean Intellectuals Solidarity argues that the balloons are good propaganda, but they rarely fly deep enough into the country to reach ordinary people. “It’s effective if you want to pressure the North Korean government,” he says, “but for 80 percent of the year the winds blow west to east, so the balloons tend to fall near the DMZ. Civilians don’t get to see them. It’s mostly soldiers there.” Park is undeterred. “There are 27,000 defectors in South Korea,” he says, “and hundreds of them have told me they’ve seen the leaflets.”
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