Dispatch

He Sends Up Balloons, and North Korea Wants Him Dead 

Meet Park Sang-hak, the North Korean defector and activist who could spark another round of “fire and fury.” 

Park Sang-Hak, an activist and defector from North Korea, scatters anti-Pyongyang leaflets as police block his planned rally near the tense border on a roadway in Paju, north of Seoul, on Oct. 22, 2012.
Park Sang-Hak, an activist and defector from North Korea, scatters anti-Pyongyang leaflets as police block his planned rally near the tense border on a roadway in Paju, north of Seoul, on Oct. 22, 2012. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

SEOUL—A black car rolled into the parking lot in southern Seoul, and three men stepped out into the summer heat. Two of the men were police officers, even though you couldn’t tell from their appearances. The third was the man they were there to protect: Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector now living in South Korea and sometimes referred to as “Enemy Zero” by the North.

“I’ve already almost died twice,” Park casually said last week from a park bench where he escorted Foreign Policy and other international journalists. In 2011, he was supposed to meet another defector but was warned against it by South Korean intelligence agents. They arrested the other defector and found two pens on his person, one with a concealed poisoned needle and the other that could fire a projectile coated in poisonous powder, as well as a flashlight capable of firing three bullets.

The following year, another North Korean spy was arrested for planning to assassinate Park. He also gets the occasional reminder of the target on his back, he claimed.

“Through the spies here in Korea, they send pigeon necks and even mice to my office,” Park said as the two police officers blocked the trail leading down to the bench, so elderly citizens had to trek through some shrubbery to continue their daily stroll.

There’s a reason why North Korea wants to kill him. He runs the organization Fighters for a Free North Korea, which keeps sending thousands of little leaflets across the border via balloons. He brought a couple to the park and waved them around as he spoke. These small pieces of light, see-through plastic, which also contains a pocket to hold $1 bills, is the cause of the latest inter-Korean diplomatic spat. All because of the words printed on them.

“It’s the truth about the Kim family, and Kim Jong Un is very scared of the truth. In North Korea, people think of Kim Jong Un as a god. They look up to him as a deity. If they know the truth about him, they wouldn’t think of him in this manner. So that’s [Kim’s] biggest fear, for people to not think of him as a god,” Park said.

“No matter how much the Kim family will try to stop me, I will send the letter of truth to the people,” he said.

Park fled the North Korean regime back in 1999 because his father had discovered a truth: the scale of the famine that had devastated North Korea in the 1990s. Fearing fresh purges, Park fled with his immediate family to China, ultimately ending up in South Korea. In 2003, he got news from back home that his fiancee had been so severely beaten that she no longer looked like her old self and his two uncles had been tortured to death. So he started doing activism and founded Fighters for a Free North Korea.

The leaflets call Kim Jong Un a hypocrite for being educated in a Western country, call him a thief for stealing the fruits of the North Korean people’s hard labor, and they even accuse him of sexual assaults of minors—harsh accusations in North Korea.

So, it did not come as a surprise this month when Kim Yo Jong, sister to the country’s leader, delivered a fiery condemnation of defectors in the South, labeling them as “human scum” and demanding punishment. It was a quiet victory for Park. “For the first time in North Korean history, they used the word ‘defectors.’ The leaflets all mention the word defectors, so they know they cannot hide it anymore. That’s how much they’re scared of the truth,” he said.

North Korean media has shown pictures of mass protests, where the people curse the defectors in the south and calling for their punishment. And for a while, it seemed like military retaliation even could have been on the table.

“It is said that the tree of peace lives off blood and that freedom is not free. Somebody has to sacrifice themselves, so if I’m killed by Kim Jong Un’s gun, it’ll be an honor,” Park said.

After North Korea’s demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have increased. North Korean troops have also been spotted moving around in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two nations and threatening to take military action.

But according to experts studying North Korea, it’s not necessarily that clear-cut. Some see the North using the leaflets as an excuse to ramp up the tensions as a means to an end. “The leaflets were never a good enough reason to blow up the [liaison] office. Sure, they don’t like them, but [Park] has been doing this for the last two years, and North Korea didn’t react. Why are they reacting now?” said Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, focusing on North Korea.

Last year, Park and his organization had 11 launches, and so far this year they’ve had five. Instead, Go believes that the North just selected the leaflets to legitimize escalating threats toward the South. The regime does so in order to de-escalate later, with the end goal being to lift some of the sanctions devastating the country’s economy.

“This is exactly what happened back in 2017. There’s a huge escalation between Pyongyang and Washington, ending up in ‘fire and fury’ and talking about who has the biggest nuclear button, then in 2018 Kim Jong Un said he’d talk to South Korea and reach out to America too,” Go said.

“And how did that work? Greatly for them, right. They started a dialogue with the Americans, which ended up in the first summit between the leaders of the two countries. So, success beyond belief from the North Korean point of view,” he added.

No sanctions were lifted though, and the February 2019 summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim in Hanoi ended in a failure, but it was closer to something tangible than Pyongyang had ever been in a long time. And that’s what the regime is hoping could happen again.

Pyongyang will continue to rustle feathers before eventually directing the fury toward Washington rather than Seoul, maybe with an intercontinental ballistic missile engine test—all to try to secure a deal with the Trump administration before the U.S. presidential election in November. And with presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden biting at the heels of Trump, it might be North Korea’s second chance, as Trump could be looking for a quick foreign-policy victory, especially now that former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton is no longer there to sabotage a summit.

“They’re doing what they’ve been doing the last five decades or so. But then you know, people still buy it, and North Korea thinks that Trump is going to buy it again because it’s convenient for Trump for his political purposes,” Go said.

Morten Soendergaard Larsen is a freelance journalist based in Seoul who writes about geopolitics.

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