Park Sang-Hak, who heads a group of North Korean defectors, tears a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un during an anti-North Korea rally outside South Korean government complex in Seoul on September 22, 2017. Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP

SEOUL – A North Korean defector Friday hurled down the gauntlet to the South Korean government with the release of propaganda balloons over the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into his former homeland.

The move by Park Sang-hak, a high-profile and uncompromising anti-Pyongyang activist, was designed to raise blood pressure inside the Kim Jong Un regime and also done in defiance of legislation passed last year in South Korea banning the activity.

The balloon release, which Park announced Friday via a press release, punts the ball into Seoul’s court, presenting the South Korean judicial and political establishments with a ticklish issue that has ethical and possibly even diplomatic ramifications.

The activist has won the support of international human rights groups, conservative groups in South Korea and even members of the US Congress.

Over the border, beyond the law

Park’s organization, Fighters for Free North Korea, announced Friday, via a press release, that it had sent a total of 500 booklets and 5,000 US dollar bills over the frontier into North Korea via 10 large balloons. 

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

Two releases were made, on April 25 and April 29, from undisclosed locations in Gangwon and Gyeonggi, the two South Korean provinces which border North Korea. A photograph released by FFNK suggested the releases happened at night.

“North Koreans, who have been robbed of all human rights, have the right to know the truth,” the release stated.

But though he called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “the worst hereditary dictator of mankind,” Park’s bigger target was the Moon Jae-in administration.

The ruling party-controlled National Assembly last December passed a law banning the release of propaganda material over the border by private citizens. The law took effect in March and could earn Park a three-year jail term.

The grounds for the ban are that releasing balloons over the flashpoint DMZ represents a dangerous breach of security. Moreover, residents in the area have complained not only of their fears of a possible North Korean counter-attack, but also of Park’s material – that frequently blows back South and litters their neighborhoods.

The Moon administration has made cross-border engagement a central policy plank, despite the hostility Pyongyang has displayed toward both Seoul and Washington since the failure of a North Korea-US summit in Hanoi in 2019.  

Critics such as Park accuse Moon and his government of appeasing the Kim regime by deploying laws designed to silence critics in the South. Park also claims he has faced government harassment, saying his home address has been leaked, his bank accounts investigated and that he had been banned from international travel.

Large balloons containing anti-Pyongyang leaflets launched at a field near the Demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas in Paju on March 26, 2016. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-Je

“Is this Seoul? Is this Pyongyang? Is [South Korea] a free democracy? Is it a totalitarian dictatorship?” Park’s release asked.

It also asked why Seoul continues to reach out to Pyongyang after being called, in North Korean propaganda, “running dogs, boiled cow’s heads, retards, first-class dunces and parroters of America.”

Park has some high-level advocates in America.  

Earlier this month, in the US Congress, the bipartisan Tom Lantos Congressional Human Rights Commission, which advocates for freedom of expression, held a hearing on Seoul’s ban of the anti-regime balloon flights.

“Some have claimed the content of these balloons are being unnecessarily provocative as justification for outlawing their use,” Korean-American Republic Representative Young Kim said at the hearing on April 16. “However, can we, in good conscience, really pay the cost of curbing free speech liberties for the sake of a regime that has no intention of offering reciprocal concessions?”

The fact that a US Congressional hearing had discussed South Korean legislation drew considerable comment in the South Korean media.

And Park’s case could become a cross-Pacific political headache at just the wrong moment for Seoul, as Moon is scheduled to meet US President Joe Biden in Washington on May 21.

‘Jail me if you dare!’

Meanwhile, Asia Times has learned, South Korea’s wheels of justice are in motion.

Park, in a telephone conversation with foreign reporters on Friday afternoon, said he had been contacted by the Ministry of Unification, which had warned him that police would be in touch.

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

Park was – typically – unapologetic.

“I did what I think was right, regardless of whether or not I go to jail for it,” he thundered. “If they put me in prison, that is better for me – I have no legal team, but I am going to defend myself to the hilt.”

He also refuted claims in some quarters that he is a stooge who receives money from conservative American organizations.

“This is all a lie. No US organization has paid me a single dollar,” he said. However, he admitted he has received individual donations from Korean-Americans.

The Unification Ministry confirmed to Asia Times that a police investigation has been initiated to confirm Park’s claim that he had, indeed, released the balloons.