Activist Park Sang-hak is planning his next punitive balloon launch into North Korea [no affiliation with NKSC].
Park, who defected from the North in 1999, regularly sends pro-democracy pamphlets in helium-filled balloons across the border – hundreds of thousands that is. He’s known to the Pyongyang regime as “Enemy Zero”, and was the target of a foiled assassination attempt using poisoned needles.
“We’re in the waiting process,” Park, flanked by two plainclothes bodyguards, told Al Jazeera in a park in Seoul.
If Pyongyang doesn’t agree to diplomatic talks with Seoul in March, when the weather gets better, he’ll dispatch the balloons.
“If North Korea continues to act like this we’re going to send copies of The Interview,” said Park of the Hollywood film depicting a CIA assassination attempt on leader Kim Jong Un that recently caused international controversy.
Long before the ribald American comedy triggered the ire of Pyongyang, pro-democracy activists in Seoul waged a steady campaign of soft power against the North.
They’ve funnelled media overtly – by balloons – or clandestinely via trusted networks of contacts and traders across the Chinese border into North Korea.
Park’s goal is for “the North Korean people to wake up and effect regime change”.
He began using balloons in 2003 after his initial attempts to smuggle DVDs across the Chinese border into North Korea failed. The contacts he paid to do this pocketed the money, then dumped his material in the Tuman River; the risk of getting caught wasn’t worth it. So he switched to balloons to deliver content.
“You can send them en masse just by using the sky right above our heads,” Park said.
The balloons are 10 to 12 metres high and usually carry leaflets about the Kim family’s “generational tyranny”. They have timers and burst at a set hour, dispersing the leaflets. Park does about 20 launches a year, and sent 300,000 leaflets in January.
Sometimes he sends DVDs and USBs with films and soap operas, which can reveal to North Koreans the “human, dignified, developed life” that exists elsewhere, said Park. The Interview could spark a “big shock” among North Koreans as “it undermines their highest authority figure”, he added.
Park launches balloons both in secret and publicly, and his activities have provoked the North to threaten military action, shoot down the balloons, and demand the halting of launches as a pre-condition for dialogue with the South.
Critics say the launches stoke inter-Korean tensions and endanger civilians.
Thor Halvorssen – founder of New York-based Human Rights Foundation, which has financed Park’s activities including the likely The Interview drop – said in the tightly controlled country “when you insert a cultural artefact that is different, it falls apart”.
The Interview is a “massive game-changer”, he said, not because it insults Kim Jong-un or depicts his assassination, but because it introduced the “alien” possibility that he could be interviewed.
“That’s what a lot of people failed to see,” Halvorssen said.
The Seoul-based North Korea Strategy Centre (NKSC) – founded by the high-profile defector Kang Chol-hwan – prefers a stealthier method of disseminating media.
For the past five years they’ve sent transistor radios, DVDs, and about 4,000 content-filled USBs through their underground network.
NKSC initially sent political information about the Korean War, for instance, said Katty Chi, a spokeswoman for the organisation, but this became dangerous for its contacts.
Given the popularity of bootleg films sold on the North Korean black market, NKSC decided to send USBs curated with foreign movies and popular culture.
Members speak to their network of defectors and sometimes hold focus groups to figure out what existing entertainment could “raise awareness about democracy and human rights”.
In practice that has meant sending films such as the American comedy-drama 50/50, which is about a man diagnosed with cancer (NKSC says it depicts good healthcare); The Lives of Others, which explores the Stasi; and The Grand Budapest Hotel, just for some fun. The dystopian Hollywood filmDivergent was also dispatched.
NKSC also sends news recordings, documentaries, K-Pop, South Korean soap operas, audio books, offline Wikipedias and applications to install them.
USBs often end up on the North Korean black market, where sellers in turn request material according to what does well. NKSC’s informants, said Chi, say the going rate for a USB that costs about $20 to make is between $45-$90.
Particularly among younger North Koreans who belong to the so-called Jangmadang or “black market generation”, Chi said foreign movies could have a “gradual impact”.
This generation grew up during the 1990s famine that killed up to three million people, and is named after the black markets that emerged so people could survive.
Chi said she doubts The Interview would resonate with North Koreans because of its bawdy, American humour. NKSC’s network has advised to send The Hunger Games trilogy instead.
“It shows a 1984 kind of perspective that would be more in tune with the North Korean mindset,” Chi said.
A woman who defected from North Korea in 2011 – and didn’t want to give her name to protect family back home – said she doesn’t believe foreign films can bring any real political change to the country.
Instead, violent or sexually promiscuous messages could mislead audiences, she told Al Jazeera via email, adding The Interview went overboard in its comedic portrayals. It’s more likely to incite hostility towards the United States, rather than at the Pyongyang regime, she said.
Growing up under a regime where authorities regulated people’s attire, foreign movies impressed on her the freedom that people outside of North Korea have to wear different clothes, like jeans, or dye their hair.
Now living in Seoul, the student of international diplomacy said she discovered foreign films through friends – until 2000 North Korean authorities turned a blind eye to bootleg movies.
“The government either didn’t know or didn’t really care, so I would meet with my friends to watch these films or TV shows,” said the 27-year-old.
In fact, some defectors said the villain in the James Bond movie Die Another Day was a welcome change to the usual American bad guys in the North’s propaganda films.
Watch a movie, go to jail
The North Korean defector said she was once detained for 24 hours for watching a foreign film before her parents bailed her out.
“For people with money it’s not a big deal,” she said, referring to a culture of bribing authorities, but those without money can be jailed for years.
According to Chris Green, the international affairs manager at the online news website Daily NK, people have been executed for having foreign films. And in 2014, the regime reportedly purged soap opera-watching party members.
While some North Koreans say foreign media motivated their defections, Green suggested it should be valued for what it’s intended to be: entertainment.
“I think that is quite impactful in and of itself,” Green said.
Max Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.
Read the article at Al Jazeera here.