The time is coming for conservatives, and far-right NGOs are stepping up. They include the Fighters for a Free North Korea (FFNK), led by someone like Park Sang-hak, who stands out from the ranks of career defectors because he isn’t so much telling scary tales as he is actively fighting the regime, not shying away from smuggling and terrorism.
His biography is very diverting. He was born in 1968 into a privileged family – the son of a high-ranking intelligence officer who lived abroad in the guise of a businessman, he had a successful career in the propaganda department of the Socialist Youth Union. But in the summer of 1997, his father decided to defect to the South straight from an overseas assignment and paid “brokers” to take his family out. Park then took his mother, brother and sister and travelled to China, bribing the border guards. On the other side of the border, the family was picked up by a car, and the whole family flew to South Korea on fake passports.
The elder Pak, as an individual with access to state secrets, got a job for the government and lied low, while the younger entered Seoul National University and went on to become a propagandist, going from being an ardent Jucheist to an ardent anti-Jucheist. In 2006 Park Sang-hak became chairman of the Democracy Network against North Korea Gulag and in 2009 he attended the Oslo Freedom Forum.
In 2011, he began launching balloons with leaflets into the North and, in 2013, became the founder and leader of the most odious anti-North Korean NGO known for launching balloons full of leaflets, human rights and pro-democracy literature, leaflets about South Korea, transistor radios, DVDs and USB sticks with soap operas and comic films mocking the North Korean leadership into North Korean territory. In addition, thousands of American dollars in small denominations and 5,000 North Korean won banknotes were sent to the North.
Theoretically, the balloons should reach the Pyongyang area, after which a timer fires off the load and the leaflets are dispersed. In fact, due to weather patterns and other unfavorable conditions in places where launching usually takes place, there is very little chance that the leaflets will not drift out to sea or in inaccessible areas. As a result, some experts consider the balloons to be more of a self-propaganda tool for obtaining foreign subsidies, and wonder how much of the money sent to North Korea finds its way into the pockets of the organizers of the rallies. Sponsors pay about 1.5 million won ($1,234) for each launch, while the actual cost of the balloon ranges from 80,000 to 120,000 won ($65.81-98.21).
In September 2011, Pak was linked to a high-profile attempted murder case. One of the defectors, an Ahn, wanted to get a meeting with Park, but in a fit of paranoia or factionalism, reported him to the security services and the man was arrested. A search of Ahn found acupuncture tools, after which the security services announced that the regime had allegedly tried to eliminate Pak with poisoned needles. After a long trial, Ahn was sentenced to four years in prison, but for South Korean law, four years for such murder is a very short sentence, below the lower limit. From this the author concludes that in fact the assassination attempt and the Pyongyang connection have not been proven. Park, however, spoke at length afterwards about the assassination attempt and even declared himself “Kim Jong-il’s personal enemy number zero”.
During Park Geun-hye’s first period in office, when she was more of a centrist, the authorities also tried to bring Park to justice and even considered turning the National Security Act against him. After all, if the launching of leaflets provokes tensions and causes North Koreans to bombard territories in the South, it could be considered an “activity benefiting the enemy”. In October 2014 (after Northerners attempted to shoot balloons with a machine gun and several rounds fell on ROK territory) the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation against Park Sang-hak and Co, charging them with intentional harm to the national interest, violation of the Air Traffic Law and the National Security Law. However, the case was not pursued because “the sending of leaflets by citizens is their constitutionally secured right”.
The change of power to “democrats” has not particularly affected Park’s actions. On June 25, 2019, for example, to mark the 69th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, his organization sent 500,000 leaflets criticizing the North Korean political power in 20 balloons to the DPRK. In addition to leaflets, 2,000 one-dollar notes were attached to the balloons, as well as 3,000 USBs and 500 brochures with data on the economic development of the ROK.
This is despite the fact that during the 2018 inter-Korean summit, the leaders of North and South Korea agreed to cease all hostile actions and eliminate their means, including loudspeaker broadcasting and leaflet distribution.
However, Park was not limited to leaflets. Audiences may remember Pyongyang accusing a group of North Korean defectors of preparing to blow up statues of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il with explosive drones. The world community dismissed the allegations as another propaganda gaffe, but in an interview with NK News, Park Sang-hak said his group had indeed launched the drones. However, as the author knows from a number of sources, Park’s plan was somewhat different: the bombings were to be followed by an information campaign about the “Christian resistance” in the DPRK, which should be assisted “along the Syrian lines”, preferably in the form of a “humanitarian intervention”.
This was not the only attempt at terrorism. Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been serious discussion in these circles of the idea of “filling the balloons bound for North Korea with dollar bills smeared with stuff that COVID-19 patients had breathed on”.
Eventually, after Park and Co.’s actions provoked an escalation in the summer of 2020 (North Korea blew up the inter-Korean joint communications office in the border town of Kaesong, citing the continued distribution of leaflets), the “fighters” were first stripped of their accreditation by the Ministry of Unification and on December 14, 2020 the National Assembly passed an amendment to the Inter-Korean Relations Act to ban the sending of propaganda leaflets to the North. Persons sending leaflets, banners and other items such as USB and SD cards to the North will now face up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to 30 million won ($27,700).
Nevertheless, in the spring of 2021, Park’s team conducted several ballooning campaigns with anti-North Korean propaganda leaflets, propaganda materials and money into DPRK territory from the border provinces of Gyeonggi and Gangwon.
On January 28, 2022, Park was charged with attempting to violate the Inter-Korean Relations Act because the investigation could not confirm whether the balloons actually arrived in North Korea. As the law is not retroactive, the charge was for acts committed between April 25 and 29, 2021, when 500,000 leaflets, 500 brochures and 5,000 one-dollar notes were transferred into North Korean territory.
During the trial, Park repeatedly refused to appear for questioning. On February 15, however, Park Sang-hak submitted a request to the Constitutional Court to determine whether the law banning leaflets was constitutional. According to his lawyer, Park was intent on protecting South Korea’s identity and independence and raising the dignity of the nation, which he felt had fallen because of the law.
The ROK government in turn stressed that a ban on the distribution of leaflets was necessary to protect the lives and safety of residents living in the border areas, as such activities could provoke the North into militant actions against the South.
But there was a change in power looming, in the run-up to which the investigation was slow, and when Yoon became president, Park felt impunity. On April 25-26, 2022, the Fighters for a Free North Korea sent 1 million propaganda leaflets to North Korea in 20 large balloons. Leaflets sent from Gimpo district, Gyeonggi Province, show a photo of President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol and the South Korean flag of Taegeukgi. There were no odious texts insulting the country’s leadership this time, however, but on April 28 the organization criticized the North Korean government’s soft policies and expressed its intention to continue sending leaflets for the benefit of its 20 million compatriots in the North. The FFNK claimed that “North Korean leader Kim Jong-un threatened South Korea and the entire humanity with nuclear weapons and missiles in the latest military parade, putting South Korea’s national security in an extremely precarious state”.
The author would call the state’s response sluggish. The Ministry of Unification said it was currently working to find out the relevant details, including whether the group’s claim was true and whether the balloons had actually been sent. On April 29, the National Police launched a preliminary investigation into FFNK for violations of the Inter-Korean Relations Act.
Of course, it is possible that the cunning Park was only imitating the sending of leaflets, in which case he should rather be tried for fraud, but in any case the author wonders how the Yoon government will behave in his next exercises? Theoretically, a prosecutor who came to power under the guise of the rule of law should ensure that Park is punished because a) the law is the law, b) North Korean responses to such provocations could badly destroy peace on the peninsula, and c) if he feels impunity, Park could well slip into outright terrorism. And if Park suddenly turns out to be “their own son of a bitch”, that will say something about the new administration.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.