1 of 4 | Defector Park Sang-hak, who heads the group Fighters for a Free North Korea, holds one of the flyers he sends by balloon into the North. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
SEOUL, July1 (UPI) -- Facing denunciation from Pyongyang and legal scrutiny at home, North Korean defectors who send leaflets and other information across the border say the practice is a vital step toward forcing change in the repressive country.
"My main goal is to let the people in North Korea know that their supreme leader is not a leader but only a hypocrite and a tyrant," said Park Sang-hak, an outspoken defector who has been sending leaflets, USB drives and dollar bills on balloons since 2004.
For defectors such as Park, information is the most powerful weapon that can be used against the North Korean regime from which they've fled. Everything from denunciations of Kim Jong Un to news reports to South Korean television dramas gives ordinary North Koreans a window into the outside world -- and, defectors hope, a motivation to escape or to try and overthrow the regime from within.
"What Kim Jong Un fears the most is his people realizing the truth," Park told UPI. "It's not U.S. Air Force bombers or other weapons he is afraid of. It's his people."
In early June, North Korea started a campaign of near daily denunciations of the leaflet senders in official state media. Pyongyang went on to sever all communications with Seoul and blow up the inter-Korean liaison office in the border city of Kaesong over what it called South Korea's failure to rein in the defectors.
South Korean officials have also been sharply critical of Park Sang-hak and his brother, Park Jung-O, whose group Kuensaem floats plastic bottles filled with rice to North Korea across the sea near the border. The Ministry of Unification filed criminal complaints against the brothers earlier this month, asking police to investigate whether they are violating laws on inter-Korean exchange and cooperation.
On Tuesday morning, police brought the brothers in for questioning, days after they raided the offices of their groups.
After an eight-hour interrogation, Park Sang-hak told reporters he is "is "confused whether this is Pyongyang or Seoul," according to news agency Yonhap. He criticized the government for "banning the freedom of expression" and "standing on the side of the enemy."
Defying warnings from the government, Park's most recent launch of balloons was June 23, when he claims supporters launched 500,000 leaflets in the middle of the night from a remote location near the border. South Korean officials said most of the balloons didn't make it across.
Kim Seung-chul, a defector who came to South Korea in 1994, has also tried to use information to spur change in North Korea. He founded North Korea Reform Radio in 2007 and broadcasts two hours of news, discussion and entertainment to listeners in the North every day on shortwave frequencies.
"We are trying to lay down the first steps for North Korean people to begin thinking differently, to change their mindsets," he said. "We want North Korean people to be free like South Korean people, to go wherever they want to go, to do whatever they want to do. They're slaves up there."
Kim Seung-chul said he believes Pyongyang's forceful recent response to the flyers shows the vulnerability of the Kim Jong Un regime as it contends with an economy that continues to suffer from international sanctions and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Now the sentiment among the North Korean people has changed," Kim Seung-chul said. "They are more open and talkative about the problems in the country and will discuss what they see on the flyers more openly."
Defectors who have fled to South Korea say that information has become more widely available in recent years, often smuggled across the border with China and shared on the black market.
"My friends and I shared USB drives with South Korean shows and music," said Kim Min-su, a 19-year-old North Korean defector who arrived in the South a year ago. "It's very common now in North Korea." (He is using a false name to protect his identity.)
Kim Min-su said that seeing the life portrayed in shows such as The Heirs, a 2013 series set in a high school filled with wealthy students, helped inspire him to try to defect.
"Watching those Korean TV series and movies really affected me a lot in making a decision to defect from North Korea," he said.
The South Korean public, however, hasn't shown much support for the defectors sending leaflets, with many blaming them for inflaming tensions on the peninsula.
Broadcaster KBS conducted a survey earlier in June that found over 60 percent of South Koreans supported a halt to the anti-Pyongyang leaflet campaigns, saying they hampered peace efforts with North Korea and put residents in border areas in danger.
Park Sang-hak has also faced accusations of financial improprieties in the fundraising for his balloon campaigns, a charge he has denied but one which authorities are investigating.
Human rights groups have criticized the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in for its targeting of the two defector groups.
"It is shameful how President Moon and his government are totally unwilling to stand up for the rights of North Koreans," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "Instead of proposing a blanket ban on sending balloons with messages and materials to the North, President Moon should publicly demand that North Korea respect freedom of expression and stop censoring what North Koreans can see."
As he awaits his legal fate, Park Sang-hak told UPI last week that he is "not scared" of going to prison. He says he often receives death threats and travels with two plainclothes police officers for security. He has been through worse.
"Compared to the situation in North Korea, prisons in South Korea are great," he said. "They're like a hotel."