Group sends sock balloons into North

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Group sends sock balloons into North

In a parking lot on the outskirts of Paju, northern Gyeonggi, four 30-foot tall cylindrical clear-plastic balloons tug and twist in the wind. A cluster of plainclothes officers look on with mild interest as a dozen volunteers hold the fifth balloon off the pavement and a man tops it off from a hissing tank of hydrogen in the back of a truck.

Cardboard boxes sit nearby, tied shut and soon to be suspended hundreds of feet above North Korea, where they will be unstrung by timers repurposed from broken house fans. They won’t be dropping propaganda, as it is typical with balloons sent from the South into the North, but a more peculiar payload - socks.

North Korean defector Lee Juseong, 47, is the mastermind behind this unusual operation. Aided by volunteers from human rights group North Korea Peace, and its parent group, the Korean Peninsula-International Peace Organization, he has sent more than 8,000 socks sailing across the Demilitarized Zone since last winter.

Lee hit upon the idea after escaping the North in October 2006. He says socks are not only cheap and light enough to float in large quantities across the DMZ, but also a hot commodity in the North, where winter temperatures can reach minus 13 degrees Celsius (8.5 Fahrenheit), shoes are in short supply and socks are apparently no longer produced domestically due to economic hardship.

An import and export trader with China before and after his defection, Lee estimates that a pair of socks equals 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of corn on the North Korean black market - enough to feed a person for a month. He laments that though nations and NGOs are donating food aid to the North, they are not ensuring that it reaches its intended civilian recipients instead of supplying the government and military.

“I’ve investigated some of these NGOs. They’re saying, ‘Yes, we’re sending food, we’re sending medicine,’ but there’s no monitoring, no auditing. Then they say, ‘It’s not in our mandate to monitor. Why would we do that?’

“But it’s meaningless to send food aid to North Korea if it’s not being monitored. What’s more important than sending food is whom it’s reaching. I remember standing in a port, watching soldiers unload the bags of rice into army trucks while villagers watched from the other side of a fence. The trucks were headed for Pyongyang.”

A crowd of some 40 participants were in attendance, having arrived by charter bus from Itaewon, central Seoul. While not all of them had specific duties assigned, many volunteers believed their presence at the launch raised awareness and carried symbolic weight. Andrew Post, an American, voiced strong enthusiasm for the project. “The balloon launches are extraordinary for two reasons,” Post said. “First, they indicate that people around the world can be made aware of the North Korean citizens’ plight and moved to help out, and second, they give ordinary people, even those who are far from their homes, an opportunity to assist those less fortunate than themselves.

“It’s tremendously important that expatriates attend these launches, for it shows North Korea and every other tyrannical state that the free peoples of the world will do what it takes to oppose totalitarianism and succor the oppressed.”

Most of the volunteers were foreign and represented nine nations. Defector Lee was grateful, but expressed some regret.

“When I see the interest of foreign visitors like you, it’s almost a little embarrassing to me. I think there’s not as much interest from the South Korean people.”

North Korean defectors were in the news earlier this month when Democratic United Party lawmaker Lim Soo-kyung accused a defector, Baek Yosep, of being a “traitor” during an alcohol-fueled shouting match at a restaurant.

A few days after, Lee Hae-chan, chairman of the DUP, dismissed a so-called North Korean human rights bill backed by the Saenuri Party as “pushed ahead to support the dissemination of anti-North leaflets by ultraconservative groups.”

North Korea Peace’s eighth balloon launch is slated for this Saturday.

By Andrew Harris[enational@joongang.co.kr]

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