Acts of defiance
North Korean defectors who have spent years countering Communist propaganda now find themselves at odds with the South Korean government
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On May 1, four days after the historic handshake between the leaders of North Korea and South Korea, a group of North Korean defectors gathered on the shores of South Korea’s Ganghwa Island, only 8 miles from the North Korean coast. Under a cloudy sky, they threw into the ocean hundreds of watertight plastic bottles filled with rice, USB drives, dollar bills, and antibiotic ointment. Taped to each bottle was a plastic-wrapped book of Genesis and a study guide.
The bottles bobbed in the cold water, the current carrying them quickly toward their destination: coastal towns in closed North Korea, where impoverished residents are blocked from information about the outside world.
“The rice in the bottles won’t last long, but the USBs could change their lives,” said Park Jung-oh, a North Korean defector and activist participating in the bottle launch. Twice a month, members from the defector organization No Chain for North Korea send out bottles, each time changing their contents. Because churches funded the current launch, the USBs included a copy of the Bible, a hymnal, and an animation about Jesus, along with South Korean dramas, documentaries on North Korea, and a video recording of President Donald Trump’s speech in Seoul on human rights abuses in North Korea.
“As defectors, we know the North Korean mentality and what types of content can break down the government’s brainwashing,” said Park, 48.
Park Jung-oh and his brother, Park Sang-hak, 50, are part of a vocal group of defectors who bring hope and information to those still living in North Korea through rice bottle launches, shortwave radio programs, and balloon launches that carry leaflets over the North’s heavily guarded border.
Yet despite their dedicated work and concern for North Korean human rights, defectors are now finding their work hampered by the South Korean government. Under President Moon Jae-in, South Korea has adopted a reconciliatory approach toward North Korea and its dictator, Kim Jong Un: At the recent summit, the two sides agreed to “completely cease all hostile acts against each other,” including the broadcasting of propaganda over giant loudspeakers and balloon drops.
The Moon administration has also silenced outspoken defectors, such as Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to Britain. In April, agents from Moon’s National Intelligence Service blocked the cable network Channel A from filming a speech by Thae at a human rights conference, then forcibly ushered him away as he began to answer a reporter’s question. Defectors say it is reminiscent of former liberal President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, when the government quieted defectors in order to improve relations with the North. Suzanne Scholte, head of the U.S.-based North Korea Freedom Coalition, called the latest developments “devastating,” as “silence means death for North Koreans.”
For now, the rice bottle launches are allowed to continue, since they provide humanitarian aid to North Korea. Yet standing on the rocky shore of Ganghwa, Jung-oh expressed concern that a balloon launch later in the week might be stopped. The balloon launch, a project led by Sang-hak, would cap off the last day of the 15th annual North Korea Freedom Week, an observance promoting North Korean human rights. This year, Freedom Week was held at an opportune time: immediately following the Moon-Kim summit and just weeks ahead of President Trump’s planned June meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore. [Editor’s note: On Thursday morning, May 24, after this story went to press, President Trump announced in a letter that he was canceling his planned June 12 meeting with Kim.]
MANY SOUTH KOREANS are excited about the possibility of peace between the North and the South, the proposed “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” and a final end to the Korean War. According to a recent poll, 78 percent of South Koreans say they trust Kim Jong Un after the summit, only months after he threatened to bomb the U.S. territory of Guam and a year after he evidently ordered the assassination of his half-brother.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met with Kim twice ahead of Trump’s meeting, said Washington would lift sanctions on North Korea if the country agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and allow a “robust verification program” to ensure it follows through. As a measure of goodwill, North Korea released three U.S. prisoners, two of whom taught at the Christian-funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
Yet North Korean defectors, who perhaps best understand the mindset of the northern regime’s Kim family, see nothing to cheer about. They distrust Kim Jong Un, whose government actively persecutes defectors’ family members. They doubt a regime that has spent years starving its own people and killing political rivals will suddenly begin keeping its promises.
“There’s a saying in North Korea: ‘A hyena can’t turn into a lamb,’” said defector Kim Heung-kwang, founder of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity. “He can pretend to have good intentions, but his evil nature has not changed.”
Many defectors and human rights groups were upset Moon did not bring up human rights during the April summit in Panmunjom. A 2014 United Nations investigation found the North Korean government guilty of crimes against humanity including “murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence … and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
In a letter to Trump, defectors urged the U.S. president to push for North Korea to completely denuclearize, to shut down its inhumane political prison camps, and to “end the enslavement of the North Korean people.” They asked Trump not to accept a “fake peace” treaty that could lead to the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea. Otherwise, they warned, “ultimately [North Korea will] try to reunify the peninsula by force.”
THE PLEAS OF DEFECTORS would seem to be finding limited sympathy in South Korea, though.
On the Saturday of the balloon launch, Jung-oh, Sang-hak, and other defector activists drove to Paju, a city near the North Korean border, and held a press conference at noon in an empty drive-in movie parking lot. They unfurled a giant poster with a cartoon Kim Jong Un clutching nuclear missiles and the message, “Do not be fooled by the cruel murderer-dictator Kim Jong Un’s fake dialogue offer, disguised peace offensive.”
Police in bright yellow vests made a human wall, ensuring only activists and media could enter the area: On the other side of the fence, a group of 150 protesters tried to shout down the activists. Protesters consisted of members of a small progressive political party as well as local Paju residents fearful of North Korean retaliation to the balloons, according to the Reuters news service. At one point, a protester snuck through the police line, standing amid the reporters and holding a sign condemning Sang-hak. A scuffle soon broke out, and police dragged the protester away.
In response, a female defector climbed to the second floor of a concession stand and yelled, “I risked my life to cross the border! You can’t stop me!” Defectors below cheered.
But someone did stop this group: As the activists drove to the launch site, South Korean police pulled over the blue truck carrying the 36-foot balloons, helium tanks, and the 150,000 leaflets, 1,000 $1 bills, and 500 booklets meant to be carried into North Korean skies. Police officers completely surrounded the truck, insisting the activists return to Seoul and cancel their launch. Sang-hak had no choice but to return home.
Sang-hak hadn’t been outwitted, though: Anticipating such a blockade, he had already released a batch of balloons two nights earlier.
CURRENTLY ABOUT 32,000 North Korean defectors live in South Korea, each with his or her own horror story of living inside North Korea and making the arduous journey to freedom. Most cross the Yalu or Tumen rivers into China, where North Korean refugees are considered illegal migrants. If Chinese police catch them, they return them to North Korea, where prison camps or execution await. One female defector described crossing into China as exchanging one hell for another: About 70 percent of defectors are women, and most are trafficked, abused, and sold as wives to Chinese men.
Korean missionaries and Christian groups have created an underground railroad in China to ferry defectors south through Laos and into Thailand, where the South Korean government will fly them to Seoul. In South Korea, defectors receive South Korean citizenship, a $6,450 stipend, and a crash course on modernity. Many struggle to adjust to the new land and face discrimination from South Korean society. Their traumatic experiences from the past leave them with PTSD, depression, and suicidal thoughts: The suicide rate among defectors is three times that of South Koreans, who already have one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
Most defectors stay under the radar, trying to make enough money to care for their families and send remittances back to relatives in the North. They keep quiet about their North Korean identity out of fear the Kim regime will punish those relatives if they speak out.
But some bold North Korean defectors have dedicated their lives to advocating for their countrymen, no matter the cost. Kim sees these defector activists as thorns in his side as they tell the world about life inside the hermit kingdom and inform North Koreans about the outside world, encouraging them to defect. As a result, high-profile activists face death threats from the Kim regime, and some even require around-the-clock protection to prevent assassination attempts.
For instance, when Sang-hak goes out, whether to speak with reporters at a balloon launch or to eat dried pollock soup at a restaurant with friends, he’s flanked by two plainclothes security agents. His work in launching balloons loaded with leaflets on life in South Korea, news reports, posters mocking Kim, and even the crass comedy The Interview, earned him the title “Enemy Zero” by the North Korean government. In 2011, a North Korean agent tried to assassinate Sang-hak with a poison-tipped pen.
The son of a top spy, Sang-hak lived a privileged life in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, working at the government’s propaganda department. Yet in 1999, Sang-hak’s father was in Japan for work when he discovered the extent of the North Korean famine, which killed 3 million people. Fearing purges, he defected and sent a messenger to urge his family to do the same, aware they were in danger of punishment for his actions. Sang-hak, Jung-oh, and their mother and sister had no choice but to cross the Yalu river into China and make their way to South Korea.
Only when he left the country did Sang-hak fully see how the Kim regime had brainwashed him and the rest of the population. In 2003, Sang-hak found out that because of the family’s defection, North Korean police had killed two of his uncles and beat his fiancée until she was unrecognizable. He decided to quit his job and start Fighters for a Free North Korea, one of several groups that send balloons into the North.
Sang-hak tracks wind currents to find the best place and times to launch the balloons but ultimately doesn’t know where they will end up. He and other defectors recall watching leaflets fall from the sky while living in North Korea and secretly reading their contents. Today, they hope others will do the same and decide to defect. North Korean soldiers along the border have shot down his balloons, and the launches rankle the South Korean government as well, especially as North-South relations warm.
“Spreading of anti-North leaflets runs against the spirit of the inter-Korean agreements under the Panmunjom Declaration agreed upon between the leaders of the two countries,” South Korea’s Unification Ministry said in a recent message to groups like Fighters for a Free North Korea.
THE POLITICAL SENSITIVITY of the balloon launches also affects the Park family’s other nonprofit work. In 2016, Seoul cut funding to a free after-school program for defectors run by Jung-oh and his wife, Kwon Ryu Yeon, for their participation in the balloon launches. The government accused them, the couple says, of using the funds to support their political activities. Officials audited Kuen Saem Education Center and did not find any mismanaged funds, yet only reissued its grant a few months ago.
“Why can’t we be involved in political activities?” Kwon asked. “What does that have to do with providing education?”
Kuen Saem meets an important need by teaching English, Korean literature, science, and math to children who have escaped the North and need to catch up academically to their South Korean peers (see sidebar). Yet funding issues have plagued the group, especially during the two years the government cut its grant. The organization managed to scrape by with donations, 30 volunteer teachers, and Jung-oh’s own money. The recently reissued grant is about half of what the group asked for, and Jung-oh and his wife hope the funding will continue.
“I strongly believe in the importance of education and in the importance of [the] balloon launch, so I want to do both,” he said.
Defectors say South Koreans often accuse them of not wanting peace in the Korean Peninsula, but they say that’s not true. They want to go to their hometowns and see their family members, but not under Kim Jong Un’s rule. Kawasaki Eiko, a Japanese citizen of Korean descent who lived in North Korea for 43 years, was blunt about what she wished Trump would say to Kim: “Give him two choices: Either give up your position as dictator, or give up your life.”
The failed balloon launch came as a disappointment to the activists, and they fear further clampdowns in the future as Moon continues to pursue talks with the North. “This is the first time during North Korean Freedom Week that we’ve been interfered with to the point where the balloon launch has been stopped,” said Scholte. “I think it should be of concern for anyone who cares about freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and especially anyone who cares about the people of North Korea, because this is a peaceful way to get information in.”
As for Sang-hak and the Fighters for a Free North Korea, they were not so easily deterred. A week after the police blockade of their balloon truck, they returned to Paju in the middle of the night. They filled their balloons with helium, launched them under cover of darkness, and sent the pro-freedom leaflets flying north, back to the home they once knew.
Acts of education
Children who defect from North Korea often have difficulty adjusting to the highly competitive South Korean school system. With gaps in their education from the months or years spent escaping North Korea, they are far behind their South Korean peers. South Korean classmates often bully North Korean students for their accents and low grades, and parents warn their children against befriending them.
To help these North Korean students, Park Jung-oh and his wife, Kwon Ryu Yeon, started a free weekly English class in 2008 taught by native English speakers. This is the most difficult subject for North Korean students, Kwon said, as English is rarely taught in North Korean schools. As the parents saw their children improve, they asked Kwon for a more expansive after-school program covering subjects like literature, science, and math. So with a government grant the couple started Kuen Saem Education Center in 2012.
Every day after school, 16 students from grades four to 11 clamber up four flights of stairs in a Seoul office building and take off their shoes as they enter the center. Volunteer teachers catch them up on subjects where they’ve fallen behind, and Park Jung-oh’s mother cooks dinner for the children. To earn volunteer hours, some of the older students help teach the younger ones. Each night they head home at 10 p.m. when their parents finally get off work.
Keun Saem aims to teach students more than just academics. They learn about human rights by helping fill the rice bottles sent off to North Korean shores. To help students deal with past trauma, the center provides art therapy.
The center’s impact on the kids’ futures could be pivotal: Suzanne Scholte noted that once North Korean students receive the special attention they need, they are able to catch up with their South Korean counterparts. —A.L.F.
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