The leaflets conundrum

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The leaflets conundrum

Yeh Young-june
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

I communicate with North Korean defector Lee Min-bok from time to time, and he emailed me recently with frustration over the U.S. congressional hearing on the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Lee had high hopes, but he said the hearing didn’t include in-depth discussions of South Korea’s law banning the sending of propaganda leaflets to North Korea, which he expected.
Lee had been a member of the elite in North Korea, working in the Agricultural Science Institute. He realized that everything he was taught in the North was nonsense. Since he settled in South Korea in 2005, he has been devoted to sending balloons carrying leaflets across the border. He wants to let North Korean people know the truth so that they can choose to no longer being deceived. He studied fluid mechanics and aeronautical meteorology in South Korea and acquired a gas safety and management license. He has dispatched hundreds of balloons with leaflets and USB memory sticks across the border. He said he was most free to engage in this activity during the Roh Moo-hyun administration from 2003 to 2008.
After the Moon Jae-in administration enacted the law that bans sending leaflets to North Korea, it was criticized as anti-human rights by the international community. Ironically, the government’s justification for banning the leaflets was the protection of human rights as they endangered residents of border areas. In other words, Seoul prioritized the safety of residents along the border over the freedom of speech of the rest of the people living in South Korea.
But Lee claims the residents along the border clapped when he sent the leaflets. What’s most important to him is the direction and speed of the wind. After carefully monitoring the weather, he drives his truck loaded with hydrogen gas equipment and decides when the timing is just right. He tries to find isolated locations. But, he insists, local residents applauded him for working hard when they spotted the scene.
He doesn’t need to be very close to the civilian control line. With a wind speed of 10 meters per second at a 5-km (3.1-mile) altitude, a balloon can fly 100 kilometers in three hours. As he would send the balloon and skedaddle before North Korea spotted it, residents in the area shouldn’t feel anxious, he says.
North Korean defectors prepare to send balloons carrying anti-North propaganda leaflets from Imjin Pavilion near the border on Feb. 16, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s birthday, in 2011. [KANG JUNG-HYUN]

North Korean defectors prepare to send balloons carrying anti-North propaganda leaflets from Imjin Pavilion near the border on Feb. 16, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s birthday, in 2011. [KANG JUNG-HYUN]

But some uncomfortable truths have surfaced. Civic groups started to transform the sending of the leaflets into events. They gave advance notice to broadcasters to get publicity. Their events became bigger. Naturally, that attracted North Korea’s attention, and residents of the border areas became anxious that it could lead to an unfortunate situation. Why do the civic groups want to draw attention to their events? A unification ministry source said in private, “I shouldn’t be discussing this openly, but there’s an ecosystem of North Korean defectors and human rights group involved with the leaflets.” When they make bigger events and get more media coverage, they get more donations. Lee said that the human rights groups that prefer staging showy events are not interested in the balloons actually reaching the North, because they tend to have little knowledge of the direction and speed of the winds. This is the inconvenient truth about the propaganda leaflets.
One alternative would be banning the act of openly sending balloons rather than banning all leaflets. Then, people living along the border would have no fear. But the government pushed for a universal leaflet ban and enforced it in late March. As a result, opponents say Korea’s democracy is being weakened.
The Kim Jong-un regime passed a law denouncing reactionary philosophy and culture in late 2020 and controls any inflow of information. Sending propaganda leaflets over the bamboo curtain is one small effort to induce North Korea to change. There is no reason for the government to ban the act. North Korea’s change will occur just as dripping water hollows out a stone in the end. We have witnessed that helping North Korean leader meet Donald Trump didn’t bring any change to the country. Sometimes small efforts are more powerful than big.
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