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Interview

North Korea defector to continue leaflet drops despite Seoul ban

Kim Jong Un grew furious after seeing them on trip, Park Sang Hak says

Park Sang-hak  prepares to release a balloon containing leaflets denouncing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2016.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- North Korean defector Park Sang Hak and his Fighters for a Free North Korea have no plans to stop sending message-bearing balloons across the border into their former home, despite mounting pressure from South Korea to keep the peace.

The group's leaflets, which are attached to balloons and floated across the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea, have emerged as a major flashpoint between the two Koreas in recent weeks, with Pyongyang destroying their liaison office in retaliation. The South Korean government is pressing charges against activist groups behind the leaflets in order to keep the door to dialogue with the North open.

Park told Nikkei in a recent interview that his group is now looking to take legal action against the South Korean government for violating its freedom of speech, drawing on his personal history to explain why he felt the leaflets were so important.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: North Korea has reacted strongly to the leaflets distributed on May 31, and demolished the North-South liaison office in Kaesong. What are your thoughts on these developments?

A: I think things are headed in the right direction, since it is now clear what kind of person Chairman Kim Jong Un is.

North and South Korea signed an agreement at the 2018 summit in the spirit of denuclearization and an end to armed provocations. North Korea broke this agreement first. Kim ordered shelling near the Northern Limit Line [the de facto maritime border] in the Yellow Sea in November. In May, North Korea shot at a sentry post near the Demilitarized Zone.

Q: South Korea has since banned the distribution of anti-North leaflets, and began the process of decertifying your organization.

A: Our constitution guarantees the freedom of speech, press and assembly. Why is the South Korean government siding with North Korea and silencing its citizens? This is a violation of the constitution, and we are discussing a legal response with lawyers.

Park Sang-hak, the North Korean defector who is leading the leaflet campaign, speaks with Nikkei. (Photo by Sotaro Suzuki)

Q: Why do you think North Korea has reacted so strongly against the leaflets this time around?

A: According to what I've learned, many of the leaflets we launched on May 31 fell in Yangdok, a hot spring resort in South Pyeongan Province. Rumor has it that Kim grew furious after he saw them in person while on a trip there.

Q: What was in the leaflets?

A: We print out text and photos condemning Kim on plastic bags, which are lighter than paper, and place a $1 bill and an SD memorycard in them. The dollar buys 13 kg of rice. The memory card contains educational material on South Korea's economic development, which is used by the South Korean military as well.

Kim stresses that he is part of the Mount Paektu bloodline, which descends directly from North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. But his mother was an ethnic Korean resident of Japan. So he murdered his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, who is a true member of the bloodline. This is something the North Korean public doesn't know. Kim [Jong Un] is most afraid that the public will discover the truth and wake up.

Q: Will you continue distributing the leaflets?

A: The leaflets are a letter from defectors to the 20 million North Koreans who have been deprived of basic human rights. Until the North Koreans stand up for their freedom, we will continue sending these letters of truth to our families. We haven't set a date for the next launch, but we are prepared. It depends on how the wind blows.

Q: How did you first come up with the idea?

A: My father moved from Japan to North Korea, then went to Seoul as a spy. There he was detained, and became a double agent for South Korea. He urged me to defect. I wasn't keen on the idea, since I was involved in smuggling operations under the military and making a good living. But I went along because my entire family had decided to go to South Korea.

I graduated from Kim Chaek University of Technology [a top North Korean university], so I was able to find a job at a research institute in South Korea and live comfortably. Then I heard that my uncle was sent to a political prison and executed, and that my cousins were forced to live on the streets. I felt extremely guilty, so I began working to dismantle political prisons in North Korea.

Q: Where does your funding come from?

A: It is 100% from South Korean donations. People say I receive money from the U.S. and live in a luxury condo and drive a Mercedes-Benz. That's a complete lie. I still rent public housing.

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