Puncturing a Regime With Balloons


Next month, two activists for North Korean refugees plan to gather dozens of volunteers along the heavily fortified border that divides North and South Korea, where they’ll launch an invasion that should easily infiltrate the tank traps, barbed wire, and more than a million combat-ready soldiers. This volunteer corps will unleash hundreds of balloons bearing battery-powered radios, which will drift northward across the DMZ and land in the open countryside. The activists hope North Koreans will find the radios and tune in to independent news stations.

Douglas Shin, a leader of the effort, yearns to kindle a fire of resistance among the people oppressed by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il. “They lost their sense of determination,” Shin says. “We have to lift up the barrier and start the information flooding.”

Shin, a Korean American pastor, and Norbert Vollertsen, a German physician, have been responsible for many of the headlines on North Korean refugees. Shin and Vollertsen have shepherded refugees through a circuitous underground railroad to South Korea, where they can gain asylum. They have helped North Koreans crash the gates of foreign embassies in Beijing, and most recently tried to smuggle two boatloads of refugees from China to South Korea before they were apprehended by authorities.

The balloon project, Shin admits, is much more small-scale, an almost symbolic gesture. Made possible by some $8,000 in donations, the low-tech endeavor comes with no guarantees. If the winds change, the balloons could get blown out to sea. Or the radios, made in China, could break once they hit the ground. Worse, if people are caught with the radios, they could end up in a prison camp—or executed. So Shin predicts that of all the radios they send, only a handful will make it. “That’s not much. It’s peanuts for an elephant. It’s more a performance for the camera frame,” he says.

Each plastic balloon—some as small as three feet in diameter, others as large as 30 feet—will carry at least one bubble-wrapped handheld radio that will play Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, a South Korean Christian station, and a secular South Korean government station. The package will also include the occasional Bible tract and messages written by children. Originally, the activists wanted to include enough money to buy a kilo of rice, but new restrictions on North Korean currency made that impossible. While some want the project to help foment a kind of velvet revolution in a nation starved for both food and freedom, some of the religious volunteers are excited about it for another reason. “It’s an excellent way to evangelize a nation,” says Gary Lane, director of news services for the Voice of the Martyrs.

For years, Christian missionary groups like Voice of the Martyrs have sent orange vinyl balloons delivering gospel messages into North Korea from China. Although Shin first got the idea from them, he’s adding religious pamphlets to some of the packages because of a more pragmatic concern—money. “Some donors requested that Jesus’s name be conveyed, but there were other donors who want this to be secular,” Shin says. “So I’m being faithful to one donor by putting in the tract, and I’m being faithful to the other donor by not including it.”

It’s not just the Christians who are interested. In recent months U.S. officials have grown alarmed by North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear weapons program but have been unable to find a strategy for halting it. Beltway insiders speculate that the CIA may now be involved with trafficking radios into the country in an effort to add international pressure to the regime. “There’s a psychological warfare going on between the U.S. and North Korea,” Shin says. “But as long as the North Koreans get their radios, I don’t care how they do it.”

The state-sponsored North Korean news agency has already accused the CIA of using foreign stations to seed rebellion. Pyongyang takes particular offense at Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-funded but independent station founded in 1996. The outlet “aims to meet the U.S. imperialists’ strategic interests and attain their purpose to invade Asia and put it under its control from A to Z,” read one official report.

On the record, U.S. government sources deny any involvement with the smuggling of radios. But Congress realizes the need for independent media in North Korea. Just last week, two members of Congress—Republican Ed Royce and Democrat Adam Schiff, both of California—successfully attached a measure to the State Department funding act that will increase Radio Free Asia broadcasting to North Korea from four hours to 24 hours a day. They realize that North Koreans still need a means to listen to Radio Free Asia and have plans for a “radio distribution program.”

“Basically the plan is to see how cheap, plastic radios could be dispersed,” Royce says, perhaps by taking advantage of North Korea’s long and porous border with China.

Reputed to be the most isolated regime in the world, North Korea permits only state-issued radios programmed to block out all but government-controlled media. But the regime is losing its iron grip, not least because of a wrecked economy. Bribery and trade in contraband have become rampant. Norbert Vollertsen, who spent more than a year in North Korea, says, “The regime is so corrupt—it’s all about money. You give a border guard some money and he’ll look away.”

As a result, 40 percent of North Korean defectors now report having listened to independent media inside the regime.

“It’s quite a diversified group, from elites to farmers, who listen to us,” says Jaehoon Ahn, director of Radio Free Asia’s Korean-language services. “It’s not possible for the North Korean central government to control the radio listeners, because their hands are full with other problems. It’s a similar situation to Eastern Europe. People doubted that a large number of people listened to Radio Free Europe in Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. But they were wrong.”

Just last month, two fishermen who escaped to South Korea in a rowboat said that secretly listening to a South Korean station gave them incentive to leave. Other North Koreans have said they buried themselves under layers of blankets to muffle the sound of foreign news over shortwave radios. A few North Korean policy makers are arguing for relaxing government control over media, claiming that citizens are so isolated, they are like “frogs in a well.”

Mark Palmer, a U.S. ambassador to Hungary during the Cold War, says Radio Free Europe was the single most important source of information for people there. He finds striking similarities between North Korea now and Eastern Europe before the Soviet collapse. “The U.S. should respond more creatively to North Korea and focus not just on nuclear weapons but on human rights and politics,” he says. “They should do it through negotiations and opening up an embassy in Pyongyang.”

Shin and Vollertsen are confident that if North Koreans find the radios, they won’t turn them in to authorities but will hide them and tune in. Even the authorities may use them. A bodyguard for Kim Jong Il who recently defected to South Korea said he had been arrested back home for listening to foreign broadcasts. The arresting officer took an inventory of the bodyguard’s possessions in his apartment. While the bodyguard was in jail, he said, the officer came to him with the list and whispered, “I want you to know that I erased the reference to your radio, because I wanted it.”