Monday, December 15, 2008

Defectors send messages into North Korea

On a drizzly December morning, Lee Min Bok kneels on the cold ground near the North Korean border and consults his laptop. He's scanning satellite weather photos to pick just the right spot for his launch. Satisfied, he and a helper load 20 large helium tanks into a van and head west.

Lee, 52, and his partner, Kim Sung Soo, say little. Less than a mile from the border, they back the van into a cemetery. One by one, they fill plastic balloons with helium, creating 36-foot-tall cylinders that snap in the wind and tug hard on the ropes. Lee, founder of the North Korean Christian Defectors Association, attaches a plastic satchel packed with thousands of vinyl fliers to the balloon. He sets the timer, and waits for the right gust of wind.

To reach the isolated society of North Korea devoid of outside newspapers, radio and television, Lee uses a simple yet elegant method to elude North Korean intelligence watchdogs: He sends millions of leaflets northward by way of helium balloons. He prefers to see himself as a North Korean David, slinging leaflets at a mighty, but vulnerable, Goliath.

In this high-tech age, the balloons have struck a nerve with Pyongyang and placed Lee, other defectors and civic groups center-stage in the Korean Peninsula's political standoff.

Analysts say the leaflets are written in simple language by former North Koreans who intimately know the North's culture. "Dear North Koreans," one begins, taking aim at Kim. "So he's a General who eats rice gruel together with the people? But how could he get love handles and a double chin if he eats rice gruel? People are starving to death, but why does the country spend so much for Kim's [extravagances]?"

[Los Angeles Times]

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