Bursting balloons of freedom
As South Korea seeks to deescalate tensions with North Korea, activists sending information across the border say the government is eroding their rights
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For the past 15 years, Pastor Eric Foley of Voice of the Martyrs Korea (VOMK) has used computer modeling software to determine if conditions are favorable to launch balloons carrying Bibles into North Korea.
The wind blows his way 10 to 15 times each summer, and he and his team trek to the countryside by the border dividing North and South Korea. They release helium-filled balloons carrying physical copies of the New Testament as well as digital and audio Bibles loaded onto SD memory cards. The balloons disappear into the night sky, popping at a high altitude as the Word of God drifts into otherwise unreachable areas in southern North Korea.
The Bible launches are Foley’s way of keeping a promise he made to underground North Korean Christians in 2003: At the time, he met with several believers in northeastern China and asked how he could partner with them. They responded that they needed more Bibles, both physical copies sent by balloons as well as Scripture broadcast over radio. Foley returned to South Korea and figured out a way to fulfill both requests.
But today, the South Korean government is making it increasingly difficult for Foley to continue his ministry. Police launched an investigation into VOMK, as officials accused four balloon launching groups of committing fraud, misusing donations, and endangering the public. They’ve blocked Foley’s car from reaching the launch site and placed the homes and office of the organization’s leaders under surveillance. Foley himself is also under investigation for his work.
Balloon launches have become a flash point between activists and the government as South Korea President Moon Jae-in tries to improve ties with North Korea. In June, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong blew up an empty joint liaison office by the border in anger over the fact that Moon had not stopped balloon launchers from sending leaflets critical of North Korea over the border. She called the activists “human scum” and “mongrel dogs” and threatened to send troops to the demilitarized zone at the border.
In response, the South Korean government announced it would pass a law to ban balloon launches and opened investigations into groups involved in the activity. On July 17, the Ministry of Unification, which handles relations with the North, revoked the nongovernmental organization (NGO) status of two groups—Fighters for a Free North Korea for sending leaflets by balloon and Kuen Saem for floating plastic bottles with rice to North Korea—claiming they are “seriously hindering the unification policy of the government.”
The Ministry of Unification’s investigation has now expanded to at least 89 groups focused on North Korean human rights issues or providing aid to defectors. While Moon claims spreading information into North Korea increases tensions and threatens the safety of South Koreans living near the border, critics say Moon is repressing free speech, attacking civil society, and ignoring North Korea’s gross human rights abuses.
“The South Korean government should halt this targeted campaign of regulatory intimidation against civil society groups,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “The recent controversy regarding cross-border leaflets should not override the need to support and protect a diverse civil society that presses North Korea to respect human rights.”
THE TWO GROUPS in the center of the maelstrom, Fighters for a Free North Korea and Kuen Saem, are run by two brothers who escaped from North Korea: Park Sang-hak and Park Jung-oh, respectively. In 2018, I followed them as they threw plastic bottles filled with rice, USB drives, dollar bills, and antibiotic ointment into the ocean, where currents would carry them to North Korean shores. I watched as they drove to the border with balloons, gas tanks, and leaflets in tow, only for local police to stop them from launching balloons. I visited Kuen Saem’s education center where after-school programs helped children who defected from North Korea catch up with their South Korean classmates.
Their father had been a top North Korean spy who defected after learning the extent of the North Korean famine in the 1990s, a disaster that killed 3 million people. The Park brothers, their sister, and their mother followed in his footsteps, crossing the Yalu River to China and making their way to South Korea. When North Korean authorities realized the family had defected, they tortured and killed their remaining family members.
After learning more about how the Kim leadership had brainwashed North Korean citizens, Park Sang-hak decided to go into advocacy work to spread the word back home. His balloon launches—which carry leaflets about North Korea’s human rights abuses, international news reports, and dollar bills—caused so much consternation in the North that the government twice sent spies to assassinate him. For years, Park Sang-hak had South Korean security personnel with him at all times for his protection.
But now he faces threats from South Korea too.
IN THE PAST POLICE HAVE OCCASIONALLY stopped activists from leafleting, especially during sensitive periods of North-South relations. But Seoul has never before banned the practice. The government considered it an act of free speech, protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Moon administration has sought peaceful reunification with North Korea, and ending the Korean War has become the government’s top priority while human rights move to the back burner. (While hostilities between the North and South stopped in 1953 with an armistice, the war never technically ended.) The administration has cut by 92 percent funding to groups defending North Korean human rights and tried to silence those that the Kim regime finds most irritating: activists, defectors, balloon launchers, radio broadcasters, and others trying to get information into North Korea.
Inter-Korea relations deteriorated after a canceled summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Vietnam last year as the North refused to give up its nuclear arsenal. North Korea is upset the South has not stopped the crushing U.S. and United Nations sanctions on the country. Kim Yo Jong’s recent attacks on balloon launchers came as she has taken on a more public role (her brother is rumored to be in poor health).
“She’s taken the lead in stopping the efforts of the human rights activists as a way to show her ability and talent and consolidate her position,” said Suzanne Scholte, president of Defense Forum Foundation. She said Moon’s response of agreeing to ban the balloon launches and pressing charges against the activist groups “is helping elevate [Kim Yo Jong’s] stature in the regime as she has been able to accomplish what her father and grandfather couldn’t.”
Gyeonggi province, where the balloons launch, banned activists from entering border areas, claiming it endangers the safety of its residents. It used city laws, including those regulating littering and outdoor advertising, to justify arresting and fining activists. Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung also began investigations into four activist groups including Fighters for a Free North Korea and VOMK, alleging the groups collected donations for profit.
In mid-July the Ministry of Unification revoked licenses for Fighters for a Free North Korea and Kuen Saem. The groups, while not illegal, can no longer raise funds or access benefits for registered nongovernmental organizations.
Park Sang-hak also said the government has taken away his bodyguards, forbidden him from leaving the country, and investigated his bank accounts. In addition, a TV station revealed his home address, exposing him to potential assassins.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Park Sang-hak said he was shocked at Moon’s appeasement. “South Korea … is a democracy, and distributing leaflets is a basic act of free speech,” he wrote. “It is nonviolent and educational and allows citizens to engage in direct communication with those suffering under North Korean oppression.”
The government intimidation does not end with balloon launches. The Ministry of Unification announced it would investigate the records and offices of 25 civil society organizations working on North Korean human rights issues and defector resettlement. It also required an additional 64 nonprofit groups working in the same field to submit documents to prove they meet NGO requirements.
Scholte noted the investigations would damage the groups’ reputations and may lose them donors since people fear donating to organizations targeted by the government.
“It’s really awful, the country [the defectors] fled to because it had freedom is coming against them as well,” Scholte said.
Scholte is also chairman of Free North Korea Radio, which broadcasts shortwave news programs into North Korea. She said that because of her work, North Korean hackers have launched cyberattacks against her. In April she received what looked like an email from The Atlantic journalist Uri Friedman asking for her comment for a story, but when she responded, her email bounced back. She called Friedman, who told her he had not sent her an email.
She also received an email from a contact who works at the South Korean Embassy that included a link to a report on North Korean human rights issues. But she learned he hadn’t sent her an email either. Intelligence officials have linked the hackers to North Korea. In the past, Scholte had also received death threats through email, and North Korean newspapers published negative political cartoons and op-eds about her.
She said the attacks reveal the effectiveness of activists’ radio broadcasts and balloons. The broadcasts include news, stories from defectors, gospel programs, and messages from Korean War veterans and U.S. lawmakers to dispel North Korean propaganda that Americans are evil.
The Parks have vowed to continue their work. “If Moon continues to subdue activists, academics, and anyone opposed to his policies, he will not only fail to help end dictatorship in North Korea,” Park Sang-hak wrote. “He will also erode liberal democracy in the South.”
FOLEY ALSO SAID HE WILL CONTINUE TO SEND BIBLES. He noted that his work doesn’t have much in common with the Parks’ groups: His deliveries don’t include any political or anti–North Korean messages. In fact, the Bible he sends over is the Chosun version, which was translated by the North Korean government itself.
Yet he and Park Sang-hak share “a vision of Korea where ordinary Koreans, north and south, are able to interact with each other directly, freely, and fully, without the mediation of the state,” Foley wrote on his blog. He noted that the government’s desire for control of all North-South communications explains why the crackdown has spread from groups doing balloon launches to any NGO related to human rights in North Korea.
VOMK has so far sent 600,000 Bibles into North Korea by balloon and other methods. Database Center for North Korean Human Rights found that in 2000, nearly zero percent of North Koreans said they’d seen a Bible. By 2016, the number had risen to 8 percent.
Foley said VOMK has long worked with local authorities, used nonflammable helium and biodegradable balloons, and ensured Bibles reached their intended destinations through computer software. The high-altitude balloons also fly out of range of North Korean fire, so the government’s recent change in policy came to him as a surprise.
He has said VOMK will obey the law, but he believes in the importance of the balloon launches: “We have to stand firm that private ministry activity is absolutely essential, especially when it’s done safely and respectfully, as we’ve done for 15 years.”
—WORLD has corrected this story to reflect that South Korean police have placed the homes and office of Voice of the Martyrs Korea leaders under surveillance.
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