Advertisement
News by VICE

Meet the Activists Launching Balloons Carrying Money and Contraband Into North Korea

VICE News looked on as clandestine fighters for a 'Free North Korea' sent hydrogen balloons with a provocative payload over the border.

by Michael Moynihan
Jan 22 2015, 10:56am

Photo par Claire Ward/VICE News

The wiry, frantic North Korean defector Park Sang-Hak is stomping through the snow, shouting, and gesticulating. Behind him, a team of women — including his elderly mother — is toiling on the bed of a decommissioned military truck, heaving overstuffed plastic bags onto the frozen ground. After a chaotic few minutes, the truck is empty, exposing a row of neatly arranged orange hydrogen tanks and a tangle of clear plastic tubing.

We're almost ready to provide the citizens of the Hermit Kingdom with money, information, and the fleeting joys of a mediocre Hollywood comedy.

Park and his comrades from Fighters for a Free North Korea (FFNK) are in a small clearing north of the city of Paju, a few hundred yards from National Route 23, and a few miles from Park's birth country. From where we're standing, North and South Korea are separated only by the expanse of the Imjin River and the massive military force of Kim Jong-un's personal army. If you didn't know that Park was preparing to send contraband material into North Korea via hydrogen balloon, it would probably look as if he pulled off the highway to illegally dump bags of trash.

Park's balloons, according to his associates, are to be carrying USB drives, propaganda leaflets, US currency, and copies of Seth Rogen's controversial comedy on North Korean totalitarianism, The Interview. But something appears to have gone wrong. More deep grunting and guttural shouts are heard from Park, and the bags are suddenly pitched back into the truck, which then speeds off onto the highway and back into the darkness.

"Henry, what the hell is going on?" I shouted. 

'It's important to remember that the North Korean regime refers to Park as "target zero."' 

Henry Song, a genial Korean-American activist, says that "they forgot a banner" that will be affixed to one of the five balloons. "It says the name of the Human Rights Foundation on it," which is the American non-profit assisting with the launch. "And something about The Interview."

Well, not quite. Park and his consiglieres from FFNK haven't forgotten the banner, which, if the heavens cooperate, will soon be fluttering in the skies above North Korea. And the bags are already here. The hydrogen too. But they forgot the balloons — and it will be another two hours before they arrive.

Park's apoplexy quickly turns to apology, and he confesses to the assembled activists, tech nerds, and a handful of accompanying journalists that "even a monkey falls out of a tree once in awhile." I imagine this is one of those colloquialisms that works better in Korean.

It's 10pm on a bitterly cold Monday night, and we are waiting on an idling bus, passing around a bottle of cheap soju. The brand we are aggressively consuming, I am reliably informed, costs "less than a bottle of water" and tastes like equal parts rubbing alcohol and distilled stomach acid. For these two hours, we'll stay warm, get slightly buzzed, and ration a box of "Binch" chocolate biscuits. All of this provokes an obvious, but necessary thought: just a few miles to our north, across the border, in a country of rolling blackouts and intermittent electricity, where food is always scarce, there is no reprieve from the brutal Korean winter. So I'll stop complaining.

While we wait for our missing components, Park unfurls the banner that will accompany one of the balloons. It's a modified version of The Interview promotional poster, with a dour Kim confessing that he is "afraid of the judgment of the people." Another line, mocking the bombastic language of North Korean propaganda, reads: "The 'great dignity' becomes the mockery of the world." But it's this bit of hopeful prognostication that catches the eye and seems more in line with what I soon discover is Park's reputation for provocation: "Kim will be assassinated."

Not if Kim gets to Park first. Park's reputation for brashness and confrontation attracts significant criticism in South Korea — the complaint often being that the balloons are both needlessly antagonistic and hopelessly ineffective. He remains a nasty irritant in the eyes of his enemies up north. But when considering the effectiveness of the balloon campaigns, it's perhaps important to remember that the North Korean regime refers to Park as "target zero." Indeed, in 2010 South Korea arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to prison a North Korean agent dispatched to Seoul — posing as a defector — to murder Park.

With a nod to the 1978 Cold War-era killing of Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov, the assassin manqué was intercepted on his way to meeting Park while in possession of a handful of poisoned-tip needles — one obscured in a Parker ballpoint pen.

None of these setbacks have dampened Pyongyang's enthusiasm for threatening violence against its enemies. Since the arrest of Park's would-be assassin, Kim's regime has repeatedly threatened to reign hellfire on the South in response to the "treasonous" activities of "human scum" like Park, while promising to "physically eliminate" those floating counterrevolutionary material into the North.

North Korea discredits human rights campaign after defector changes his story. Read more here.

A man holds a balloon carrying leaflets at a clandestine balloon launch near the North Korean border. Photo by Claire Ward.  

Balloons are released near the North Korean border; one contains a GPS tracker monitored by the Human Rights Foundation. Photo by Claire Ward. 

Finally, the balloons arrive. The hydrogen tanks are prepped.

"If anyone is smoking, please stop smoking immediately," a Human Rights Foundation representative warned.

Todd Huffman, an American Silicon Valley-type with a shock of pink hair, joined up with the Human Rights Foundation to offer technical advice on making Park's launches more effective. He is crouched down securing a GPS device to one of the balloons with duct tape. "I bought it at REI for $150," he says. Huffman plans on gathering basic data on the balloon's flight path, though this is offered with an important caveat: we might lose the signal after the ascent, because extreme cold has a habit of making the batteries stop working.

And with that comes the deafening roar of hydrogen inflating five 36-foot, translucent, condom-like balloons. The bags and banners are attached, followed by a few in-unison shouts about freeing North Korea and wishing death upon its leader, and the balloons are released. They rapidly ascend and quickly disappear into the darkness.

There are no representatives from the South Korean media present, and only VICE News cameras were allowed to tag along. Indeed, the launch represents a significant change in tactics for FFNK, the leaders of which have decided to move away from their much-criticized daytime media events — complete with the periodic confrontation with local police — towards clandestine night launches. In 2011, the New York Times noted that Park chose launch sites based on their "publicity potential," which has angered locals living near the border and rival defector groups. This, he says, will no longer be the case.

Park might not be focused as much on publicity these days — he is, after all, one of the country's most recognizable defectors — but he still knows how to tweak the media. The day after the launch, Park and the Human Rights Foundation held a chaotic press conference in front of Seoul's War Memorial of Korea, where it was announced that, unbeknownst to those at Monday's launch, the balloons were only ferrying propaganda leaflets and American money into North Korea. No copies of The Interview were included.

When I ask around, a few people close to Park mention that he relented to South Korean government demands that copies of the film not be included in this latest drop. He agreed — sort of. Because at the press conference, Park threatens that if the DPRK doesn't agree to re-engage in talks with South Korea, FFNK reserves the right to blanket the country with copies of The Interview. Seth Rogen and James Franco appear to have been weaponized in the struggle between North and South Korea.

When I asked an American activist why we were told that The Interview would be included in this balloon drop, he shrugged, saying Park nixed the idea at the last minute when he realized he could use the film as "a wedge," or a "negotiating tactic with the [North Korean] government."

A woman defector holds a balloon as it is filled in preparation for a clandestine balloon launch near the North Korean border. Photo by Claire Ward.

Balloons are released near the North Korean border; one contains a GPS tracker monitored by the Human Rights Foundation. Photo by Claire Ward. 

Because it is, after all, Park's operation, and he decides what goes with his balloons. As one irritated South Korean wrote on Tumblr, by "giving the Human Rights Foundation and the United States complete credit for [The Interview balloon drops], you're erasing Park Sang-Hak's involvement and perpetuating a form of American Imperialism and US-Centricism [sic], no matter how well meaning you may be in your concern."

The next morning over breakfast, Huffman shows me the path of the GPS-tracked balloon on his phone. The device pinged the satellite multiple times after launch, as it headed south towards Seoul, and then went dark. As predicted, the batteries had locked up in the extreme cold. But when the balloon's payload landed — unfortunately not far from where it launched, in South Korea — the tracking device warmed up and was reactivated: someone had picked up the bag in the woods, thrown it into a car, and Huffman was watching it speed south along National Route 23, en route back towards Seoul. It's unclear where the other four landed.

But Park is busy preparing for his next launch. And if the government in Pyongyang doesn't agree to his demands, the long-suffering people of North Korea just might have to undergo viewings of The Interview.

South Korea is still talking tough on North Korea — but their relations might actually be improving. Read more here.

Follow Michael Moynihan on Twitter: @mcmoynihan