N. Korean Defector Fights on Amid Controversy

N. Korean Defector Fights on Amid Controversy

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Piled along the wall of a tiny office in southern Seoul, the transparent bags filled with pamphlets and DVDs seem innocuous enough, as does the slight frame of Park Sang-hak, the man who assembles them.

But when the North Korean defector transports the bags to the border, fills them with helium and floats them into the North, they become a force that makes the Kim Jong-il regime have fits.

The balloons are the controversial weapons of Park and his group Fighters for a Free North Korea to deliver information to their countrymen in the tightly-controlled Stalinist state.

Call him hero, traitor or rabble-rouser — former U.S. President George W. Bush simply dubbed him a “fireball.” Just don’t expect him to stop his acts of agitation amid protests from both sides of the border — Park punches well above his weight.

“The truth will set them free,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m confident about that.”

A leader emerges

It’s no wonder the regime has protested the balloons so fiercely. The materials they carry over are damning evidence of its human rights violations and a compelling argument for democracy.

They also include news of the recent toppling of oppressive regimes in the Arab world and radios with which North Koreans can receive broadcasts from the outside.

Ironically, however, Park himself doesn’t feel free.

“I came here for freedom and in a lot of ways, it’s restricted,” he said as policemen guarded his office door. They also escort him everywhere he goes.

The regime has made threatening calls to his cell phone and has mentioned his name during military meetings, Park said, adding that he carefully manages his public activities upon the request of authorities here.

He cannot visit China or Russia, for fear he’ll be kidnapped by North Korean agents there.

It’s all part of life as the top defector on Pyongyang’s most wanted list.

Park stepped into the forefront last year when Hwang Jang-yeop, the highest ranking official ever to defect from the North, died of natural causes.

“After that I became the No.1 target of the North,” he said. “But I am taking that risk to carry on his message and broaden our activities.”

The activist, the son of a former North Korean spy, could never have imagined taking such a role before arriving 11 years ago.

The family made the move when Park’s father, after an espionage trip, realized the backwardness of life under the regime. Living a relatively privileged life, the son struggled for months before deciding to join them.

“I always had suspicions about the regime. But when I defected and saw all the apartments and cars here, I realized Kim Jong-il was an evil man,” he recalled.

“He is treating 20 million North Koreans as slaves. Defectors experienced that treatment so it is our responsibility to do this type of work,” he added.

Lightning rod

But for all his efforts, perhaps the most indelible image of Park is him brawling with activists who argue that the balloons conflagrate tensions after Pyongyang threatened to bombard the launch areas.

The Lee administration allows the activities that were banned under previous administrations on condition of abiding by laws. But liberal activists have called loudly for him to stop.

Those people, Park says, simply don’t understand the conditions in the North.

“In the South, people can call one another and send e-mails and letters to their parents,” he said. “But the sky is the best way to communicate with North Koreans. They have the right to know the truth.”

The activist’s restricted mobility may symbolize the frustrations of other defectors who often struggle with social hurdles such as discrimination and problems in the job and education sectors.

“Because the South and North have totally different systems and are used to the hatred between us, many defectors feel a sense of isolation once they get here,” he said.

At the heart of the matter, Park said, is that southerners are looking at the North and the issue of reunification through the wrong lens.

“The idea that the South’s system is superior to the North’s created pride in people, while eliminating any sense of warmth. Now defectors get treated as third-class citizens.”

President Lee has stressed that reunification is only a matter of time and his government is pushing ahead with a special tax to cover the hefty projected costs.

But Park said it was more important for the nation to change its air of superiority toward North Koreans — separating the people from the regime.

“How can a country that cannot embrace 20,000 defectors embrace all North Koreans?” he said. “It’s like a boxer who gets beaten by amateurs wanting to become the world champion.”

Park said he would continue all possible activities to bring freedom to his people and carry on the mission of Hwang, his mentor.

One thing, however, that he finds little time for anymore is attending seminars and forums to discuss the problem, which he used to travel across the globe for.

“The idea that Kim’s control is getting stronger is a false. What is most vital now is to be active,” he said. “North Koreans desperately want freedom, but they cannot fight for it without the truth and facts. The launches will continue.”

Korea Times intern Yeo Jun-yeop contributed to this article. — ED.