Informal Institute for National Security Thinkers and Practitioners - News from the Associate Director, Security Studies Program
Saturday, July 6, 2013
Park Sang Hak: North Korea's 'Enemy Zero'
This is why there needs to be a comprehensive influence campaign. (But I perhaps the ROK government feels it must show public opposition and disapproval but at the same time it has at least tacitly supported these efforts for some years so I am sure underneath all of this that the ROK government does approve). But the north Korean reaction is one of the best measures of effectiveness of the defector's influence operations and demonstrates the value of an influence campaign. These efforts are going to make one of the most important contributions to unification because they are helping to prepare the north Korean population for unification.
It's nerve-racking to drive toward the North Korean border with Park Sang Hak. Called "Fireball" by his admirers, the North Korean-born Mr. Park is designated "Enemy Zero" by the Pyongyang regime, which two years ago sent an agent into South Korea to assassinate him with a poison-tipped pen. On this summer morning, he promises to do again what so infuriates the Kim dictatorship—launch large balloons into North Korea carrying leaflets, computer-memory sticks and sweets for the oppressed people of the hermit kingdom.
In return, Pyongyang promises to "physically eliminate the kind of human scum that commits such treason." Adds the North Korean military: "The U.S. and the present puppet authorities of South Korea should not forget even a moment that the Rimjin Pavilion"—Mr. Park's favorite launch site near the Demilitarized Zone separating the two countries—"is within the range of direct sighting strike" of the Korean People's Army.
North Korean threats are generally discounted as bluster, but driving toward the border has a way of concentrating the mind. The highway from the South carries little traffic in either direction and is separated from the Imjin River by barbed-wire fences, guard towers and civil-defense loudspeakers.
Yet once we arrive at the balloon-launch site, it becomes clear that Mr. Park has a different antagonist to contend with: South Korea, which has deployed a few hundred police to stop his airborne humanitarian mission. The police let him speak to assembled local media, but when Mr. Park tries to retrieve his balloons from a pickup truck, three rows of plainclothes officers block the way. Mr. Park tries to push through, but the police push back. When he tries to drive the truck slowly through the cordon to a different launch site, a large scuffle breaks out.
Shoving matches pit uniformed and plainclothes police against Mr. Park and fellow activists—most of whom, like him, are native North Koreans who defected to the South sometime in the past 15 years. The most recent defectors wear handkerchiefs to cover their faces, because their identification in photos could mean imprisonment or execution for family members left behind. The grim, chaotic scene ends when Mr. Park is shoved into a police car and driven to the Paju Police Station.
He is released later that day, but not without a reinforced sense that something is rotten in one of the world's most prosperous democracies. "Launching balloons is legal activism that I can do as a free citizen," he tells me (through an interpreter) when we meet again two days later. But his arrest shows that "the threatening and blackmailing by the North Korean regime work well in the international community." And especially in Seoul, he argues, where successive South Korean governments have played down the catastrophic human-rights abuses across the border.
To be born in North Korea is generally a life sentence in the world's cruelest totalitarian state. There is no freedom of speech or worship. North Koreans can't travel without official permission, and border guards have shoot-to-kill orders for anyone trying to flee. More than 200,000 languish in kwalliso, political prisons akin to Stalin's gulag, where more than one million have died. Almost no one owns a car, only about 10% of apartments have refrigerators, and some 10% of the population died of starvation in the mid-1990s. The average 7-year-old is 8 inches shorter and 22 pounds lighter than peers in South Korea.
Mr. Park is one of roughly 25,000 North Koreans to escape and get to the South, and his balloon launches aim to break the information monopoly held by the Kim family. In addition to praising the South's liberal democracy, the leaflets reveal unflattering truths about Pyongyang's rulers, such as Kim Il Sung's craving for mistresses during his reign from 1948-94. The digital memory sticks inform North Koreans about the world, including "people power" movements and life inside South Korea as captured by news articles, movies and (especially) soap operas.
The idea, says Mr. Park, is that even in North Korea "the truth can set you free"—but only if you have access to it. "We don't want the South Korean government or the U.S. government to start a war," he says. "What we're waiting for is to change the [Pyongyang] regime by the hands of North Koreans who are educated with the truth. . . . That's the only way we can give freedom to the 24 million people in North Korea."
This strategy of pursuing regime change from within was explicitly rejected by South Korean leaders during the "Sunshine Policy" years of 1998-2008. Seoul believed that Kim Il Sung's successor, his son Kim Jong Il, would lose interest in nuclear weapons and loosen his grip at home if he saw that no outside forces were working to oust his regime. So South Korean presidents feted him at summits, gave him economic benefits, and ignored human rights.