Activist floats balloons again despite North Korea’s warning

An activist said Monday he has again flown huge balloons carrying COVID-19 relief items and an anti-North Korea placard across the tense inter-Korean border, despite the North’s recent warning of a deadly attack over his activities.

Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector-turned-activist, said the 20 balloons launched from a South Korean border town on Sunday carried 20,000 masks and tens of thousands of Tylenol and Vitamin C tablets.

He said one of the balloons carried a placard with a message that reads “Let’s eradicate Kim Jong Un and (his sister) Kim Yo Jong,” along with their photos. He said no other propaganda statements were carried by the balloons.

For years, Park has floated helium-filled balloons with numerous, small anti-Pyongyang leaflets with harsh criticism of the Kim family’s authoritarian rule in North Korea. But he’s recently changed his cargo to masks and other health products amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

North Korea is deeply angered by such activism and has made the highly questionable claim that leaflets, banknotes and booklets flown from South Korea caused the country’s COVID-19 outbreak this year. Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of the country’s leader, said last month that North Korea would respond by “wiping out the South Korean authorities” if “rubbish” continued to be flown from South Korea.

Days after Kim Yo Jong’s warning, a man wielding a steel pipe attacked Park at a rally in Seoul, breaking the activist’s arm.

Police said the attacker was detained but didn’t immediately provide further details. Park said he believes North Korea has ordered pro-Pyongyang forces in South Korea to attack his group, a claim that cannot be independently confirmed.

In a failed assassination attempt in 2011, South Korean authorities captured a North Korean agent who tried to kill Park with a pen equipped with a poison needle.

North Korea is extremely sensitive to leafleting campaigns and other outside attempts to criticize the Kim family’s authoritarian rule of its people, most of whom have little access to foreign news. In 2014, North Korea fired at balloons flying toward its territory, and in 2020 it destroyed an empty South Korean-built liaison office in the North to express its anger over leafleting.

Last year, South Korea, under its previous liberal government that sought to improve ties with the North, enforced a contentious new law criminalizing civilian leafleting campaigns. Park still kept launching propaganda balloons, becoming the first person to be indicted over the law that punishes flying leaflets, USB drives or money into North Korea with up to three years in prison.

But Park’s trial has virtually been suspended after he filed a petition requesting the Constitutional Court to rule whether the new law is unconstitutional, according to Park’s lawyer, Lee Hun.

Opponents of the law say it’s sacrificing South Korea’s freedom of speech to seek improved ties with North Korea. But supporters say the law is aimed at unnecessarily provoking North Korea and promoting the safety of front-line South Korean residents.

Park faced separate police questioning over his balloon flights conducted before the law’s enforcement.

In March, he was handed a suspended fine of 3 million won ($2,190) for violating the law on donations. Prosecutors, citing a lack of evidence, had earlier decided not to indict him over other charges including an alleged violation of a law on inter-Korean cooperation. The suspended fine means Park doesn’t need to pay penalty unless he breaks law again and receives a prison sentence or bigger punishment during the one-year period, according to Lee, the lawyer.

Sunday’s balloon launches were Park’s fourth campaign to scatter medical relief items to North Korea. After his third launch in July, South Korean police said they were investigating his activities. On Monday, police weren’t immediately available for comment and Park said he hasn’t been contacted by police.

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