Home > NKSC in the Media > ‘Cartoons or Soap Operas: South Korea Debates Tackling North Korean Human Rights’ Alastair Gale

Cartoons or Soap Operas: South Korea Debates Tackling North Korean Human Rights
5:00 pm KST Dec 5, 2014

By ALASTAIR GALE

Kang Cheol-hwan says U.S. TV series Desperate Housewives is a more effective tool to free North Korean minds than leaflets showing caricatures of Kim Jong Un as a pig.

People sign their autographs on the list urging passage of a bill on North Korea’s human rights situation that has been pending for almost 10 years, during a campaign in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. Associated Press

People sign their autographs on the list urging passage of a bill on North Korea’s human rights situation that has been pending for almost 10 years, during a campaign in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. Associated Press

Mr. Kang, an activist in Seoul who spent a decade in a North Korean prison camp, has been a prominent figure in a renewed debate on South Korea’s role in pressuring Pyongyang to give its people more freedoms—and encouraging North Koreans to seek democratic change.

The debate has focused in recent weeks on activists that send sequoia-sized balloons carrying leaflets critical of the North Korean regime across the border. Many of the leaflets ridicule the Pyongyang regime and some show images such as the mutilated body of deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi—a hint ofthese activists’ desired fate for North Korea’s leaders.

After warning for years that it would attack the launch sites, North Korean artillery for the first time shot at the helium-filled balloons on Oct. 10. South Korea returned fire but no injuries were reported. Following the incident asubsequent launch was sabotaged by locals who pierced holes in the balloons and formed blockades to prevent the activists from reaching launch sites.

Mr. Kang used to be part of an activist group that used balloon launches as one of its tools. But now, he says he’s found a better way to try and spur change.

“North Korean people are not interested in anti-regime propaganda,” he said in a recent interview. He says it’s hard to know where the balloons will end up and sending them also creates unnecessary confrontation.

Mr. Kang now heads a group that uses traders who cross the border into North Korea from China to distribute DVDs and USB sticks loaded with South Korean and American soap operas, movies and the entire Korean-language contents of Wikipedia, the open-source encyclopedia.

“We want them to see through documentaries, movies, and dramas that people have the freedom to speak and move freely,” he says. Some defectors from North Korea say they made the decision to leave North Koreaafter being exposed to foreign media.

“I know many women like to watch Desperate Housewives. When North Koreans watch dramas they are very surprised at how much food everyone gets to eat,” he adds.

Mr. Kang’s group, North Korea Strategy Center, recently launched a campaign to raise funds to send in 500 USB drives into North Korea. Each USB costs about $20, based on manufacturing, production and delivery costs.

The devices are sold into black markets in North Korea, although Mr. Kang admits it’s impossible to know how many people will view the contents. He notes, however, that the spread of media players in North Korea in recent years means far more people are able to access foreign content.

“Even if the security agents catch you watching foreign content, after they confiscate it they will watch it too,” he says.

As Mr. Kang’s group seeks funding for his program of subversion, attention has remained fixed on the balloon activists. South Korea’s two main political parties are currently discussing the possible passage of a North Korean human rights bill, which has divided politicians for years. Left-of-center leaders have been reluctant to confront Pyongyang, fearing it would worsen relations.

But as the issue has come into focus following the release this year of an extensive report on North Korean human rights by a United Nations commission, South Korean lawmakers are attempting to resolve differences and enact a human rights bill.

A major point of contention is possible state funding of civic groups focused on North Korean human rights. The ruling conservative party proposes such a mechanism, but the main opposition party says it could stoke tensions by funding activists that confront North Korea, such as those that launch balloons. Instead, it seeks to promote humanitarian aid and economic cooperation.

Read the article at the Wall Street Journal blog here!