For defector from the North, balloons carry message of hope

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For defector from the North, balloons carry message of hope


Lee Min-bok, North Korean defector and activist

North Korean defector Lee Min-bok starts his day by checking the forecast provided by the Korea Aviation Meteorological Agency. From time to time, he releases balloons to North Korea as part of the Campaign for Helping North Korean in Direct Way.

When the air at 10,000 feet flows to the north, he drives his truck loaded with hydrogen canisters and large balloons to the border. The balloons carry DVDs, USB sticks, one-dollar bills, medicine and food.

Lee has sent about 8,000 balloons with timers he designed himself, which blow the balloons and spread the leaflets. He is also certified to use high-pressure hydrogen.

Lee, born in Hwanghae Province in North Korea in 1957, worked as a scientific researcher. He defected from the North in 1990, but was sent back the same year. He escaped again in 1991, and four years later became the first UN refugee to land in South Korea.

He arrived for the interview with two bodyguards. Four policemen have been guarding him 24/7 since 2008, when he was added to North Korea’s hit list.

“Some say it is a security measure fit for a prime minister,” said Lee. “But I had to give up my privacy instead.”

Lee now lives in a shipping container. His wife couldn’t stand it and demanded a divorce.

Q. North Korea put you on its hit list, saying you could die anywhere and anytime.

A. I’m not worried. It only means that my balloons work.

Are you now living in Pocheon?

I moved from Seoul, because I need to go out whenever the wind blows to the north.

What do you usually do when you are not flying balloons?

I spend a lot of my time on the balloons because they need a lot of preparation. My other jobs also are related to leaflets.

How many balloons and leaflets have you sent so far?

I designed the current type of balloons in July 2005 and send about 1,000 to 1,500 of them a year. I think I have flown about 400 million leaflets.

Why did you design the balloons on your own?

I began sending balloons to North Korea in 2003. At first they were rubber balloons, so they didn’t last long or fly farther into the North. So I decided to make bigger balloons on my own. When I asked psychological warfare officials of the Ministry of National Defense, they said they needed to charge about 3 million won [$2,765] per balloon. Then I made balloons with plastic and it cost 100,000 won per balloon, including the contents. I taught it to others and now everyone is using this type of balloon.

How do you afford the large expense?

There are people sponsoring us, and we write their names on the balloons, take pictures of them and send them to the sponsors to express our gratitude.

Does the government support you?

I can show you the ledger. There is no money coming from the government.

How do you make a living?

I receive about 10 percent of the sponsor funds as compensation for my labor.

One of your balloons recently could have started an engagement between the North and the South. Haven’t you thought that what you are doing could start a war?

I already thought of it and suggested the government prohibit sending up such balloons publicly. And some organizations still notify the government of the time and venue in advance to show their activities. I’m always doing it secretly.

The recent engagement occurred because one of the balloons I sent up on Oct. 10 lacked gas and flew low. I just hope it will be an opportunity to correct inappropriate activities of other organizations.

Some of those organizations said they will stop flying the balloons. Are you going to keep doing it?

Sure. It is a campaign for human rights and it conforms to constitutional law. It does no harm to anyone if we keep it a secret. I don’t mean to provoke North Korea by negative attacks. North Korea will collapse if we just keep propagating pure facts.

You recently filed a lawsuit against the government claiming your freedom of expression was violated. How does the government violate your right when you do it secretly?

Because policemen are guarding me, my every move is reported. Local police and military are notified when I go out to fly the balloons. They are not interested in unification, but only want to make sure nothing bad happens in their jurisdictions.

There is no basis for them to stop me, so they just put up notifications that say they will not take responsibility. Then local residents come to me to protest. I filed the lawsuit because authorities disturb my work any way they can.

Was the situation different under previous administrations?

The Roh Moo-hyun government did not care about it at all. There were no guards and people were sensitive about inspections of civilians. That was the time I was most active in flying balloons to the North.

Do you write the leaflets, too?

Writing them is the most difficult job. The writing should be perfect so that North Korea cannot respond. I deeply think about it and anticipate not just one but three moves ahead. I’m completely identifying myself on the leaflets with my email address and phone number. On the leaflet, I write how I knew about and came to South Korea, and what it is like here.

Are you saying you are going to enlighten those who are living in the North?

Residents of North Korea are being dragged to the cliff with their eyes and ears shut. The humanitarian measures that will keep them from falling will be the leaflets. We are all kin, but we are fighting against each other.

North Korea asks why South Korea had Americans kill their kin, but it is North Korea that actually provoked South Korea first. I’m trying to tell the North Koreans that the United States freed us and South Korea is a victim.

What do you think of President Park Geun-hye saying unification would be a bonanza?

If you want unification, you should forget “unification expense.” No one worries about unification expense when investing in China. You should think of North Korea as a foreign country just like China, and the idea does not deny that we are in the same ethnic group. Labor costs, for example, would be one of our benefits. The word “unification expense” is shooing people away. They should change it to “unification investment.”

Successfully settling down in South Korea may be a more powerful way to enlighten North Koreans.

I am a scientist and I believed I had something else to do. When North Korea collapses, all problems, including human rights and nuclear weapons, will be solved. I’m happy because I’m doing what I want. I think I’m the person who settled down in South Korea the best.


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