In this file photo, North Korean defectors launch anti-NK balloons carrying leaflets near the DMZ in South Korea. Photo: AFP

An activist who dispatches balloons and drones carrying anti-regime leaflets into North Korea is facing possible jail – in South Korea.

Park Sang-hak, who heads NGO Fighters for Free North Korea, is facing governmental pressure to stop flying balloons carrying anti-regime messaging over the flashpoint border. The 53-year-old, who defected from North to South in 2000, shot back on Monday with all guns blazing, targeting the governments on both sides of the DMZ.

Speaking in strident tones to foreign correspondents in Seoul, Park vowed to continue his activities. He angrily alleged that his rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association were being breached, accused Seoul of being a “left-wing dictatorship” and said he was planning to sue President Moon Jae-in in an international court.

The balloon-flying activists and NGOs, of whom Park is arguably the most prominent, have irked not only the hardline government in Pyongyang, but also Seoul and some South Korean residents of border districts.  

The two Koreas have agreed not to send propaganda to each other. Pyongyang is enraged at the breach of its information wall and at leaflets attacking its ruling Kim dynasty. Under the Moon administration, Seoul has prioritized inter-Koreans relations and seeks to maintain the fragile goodwill it has built.

Meanwhile, residents of the South Korean areas where the balloons are launched cite national security, saying the activities put them at risk of North Korean retaliation. They also say that some airborne propaganda, as well as plastic bottles with rice that are floated north on the tide, never make it to North Korea, but instead pollute their own landscapes.

But Park, citing the North Korean regime’s villainy, is not buying any of it.

“I believe [South] Korea is mired in Stockholm syndrome,” he said. “It is as if a thief is grabbing the guard by his throat and saying the guard is the thief, or a murderer suing a policeman.”

Anti-Pyongyang activist Park Sang-hak holds up a leaflet lambasting North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and a booklet praising South Korean development. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Air-borne pornography

Last week, Moscow’s ambassador to Pyongyang, Alexander Matsegora, revealed that airborne propaganda sent north by activists on March 31 from the south had hit where it hurts.

The propaganda included a photo-shopped pornographic image of North Korean First Lady Ri Sol Ju, suggesting she sought sexual liaisons with Roh Moo-hyun, a former South Korean president.

That could explain why, on June 16, Pyongyang blew up a key inter-Korean liaison office, which shocked Seoul.

Park, however, denied sending any pornography. That, he said, had been sent by an unrelated civic organization, Blue Union. Moreover, it had been sent seven years ago, not on March 31 this year, he claimed.

He showed foreign reporters two information resources he said he had been sending by balloon and drone in launches conducted on April 30, May 31 and June 22.

One was a leaflet, which detailed the “devilish” assassination of Kim Jong Un’s elder half brother Kim Jong Nam in a chemical attack in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017. It is widely alleged that the killing was ordered by Pyongyang, although questions still hang over the affair.

The other was a brochure called “The Ugly Duckling Became a Swan,” which tells the story of the rise of South Korea, its economy and its companies. Park also had leaflets which point out what he called the “lies and hypocrisies” of the three-generation Kim dynasty, and Kim’s widespread execution program.

His activities are designed to “promote free democracy and free economy,” while pointing out “the slaughter and brutality of the devil Kim Jong Un,” Park said.

Regarding North Korea’s recent explosions of anger, Park offered an alternative opinion to Matsegora’s.

Without citing sources, Park said he had heard rumors that one of his balloons had landed in Kim Jong Un’s hot spring resort at the end of May.

“I believe he frequently visits these hots springs as a routine to lose weight,” he said. “That was when the oversized pig found one of the leaflets.” 

Legal blowback

In reaction to Pyongyang’s June 16 demolition of the liaison office, Seoul said it would halt the balloon flyers, including legislating against their activities. On Monday, the Ministry of Unification sent an explanatory note to foreign reporters stating its case.

“The act of sending leaflets and any other goods toward the North should stop as it raises tensions between the two Koreas and poses a threat to the lives and safety of border area residents of the South,” the message read.

It stated that North Korean troops had fired on a balloon crossing the DMZ in 2014, prompting South Korea to return fire. It further noted that “freedom of expression is not unlimited, but can be restricted for national security and public welfare.”

North Korea wants South Korea to stop activists from flying anti-Kim Jong Un propaganda balloons over their border. Photo: AFP/Getty

Park now faces multiple legal challenges.

They including having the license of his NGO revoked. Another charge is for dangerous transport of the hydrogen Park uses to inflate his balloons. Authorities have now prevented him from obtaining hydrogen, Park said, forcing him to use helium, which is 14 times more expensive.

Park said on his last balloon launch, on June 22, his NGO had to outfox thousands of policemen sent to stop them. Now, he said he is being “mercilessly coerced” and under attack by the government, police investigators and pro-government media.

Calling the Moon administration, which has championed inter-Korean relations, “a leftist dictatorship,” Park alleged that in response to threats made by Kim Jo Yong, Seoul had violated “basic principles of free democracy, thereby taking aboard Kim Yo Jong’s command and violating the right to free speech.”

Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un, is Vice-Director of the Korean Workers Party United Front Department. In recent weeks, she has taken a hawkish lead, lambasting and threatening South Korea. 

Noting that balloons carrying anti-regime messaging had been sent into North Korea by activists for 15 years, Park’s lawyer, Lee Hun, called ongoing government actions against Park “unconstitutional” and an “abuse of governmental authority.”  

He also noted that a 2015 litigation by border residents against Park had failed to stick. But Lee warned that the 2015 cases were simply for preliminary injunctions, while the current raft of charges are criminal cases.

Donations increase

Park is defiant.  “As long as Kim Jong Un continues to threaten South Korea with nuclear missiles, we will continue to send leaflets to North Korea,” he said.

“I believe there are forces that are trying to put me in jail, but I believe that going to jail in summer heat would be cool and nice and a second or third Park Sang hak will continue to send leaflets to North Korea.”

But some good has come Park’s way out of the current controversy. Because of the recent publicity, his donations have increased threefold, he said.  

He made clear, however, that he is not receiving funding from official or quasi-official American bodies and he said he had sought a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy eight times, without success. But he does receive assistance from Korean-Americans.

Now he has President Moon in his sights. Though he is banned from traveling abroad, Park claimed he had associates in the United States who would attempt to place Moon before the International Criminal Court for violating his rights as an activist.