Park Jung-oh and his brother, Park Sang-hak, 50, are part of a vocal group of defectors who bring hope and information to those still living in North Korea through rice bottle launches, shortwave radio programs, and balloon launches that carry leaflets over the North’s heavily guarded border.
Yet despite their dedicated work and concern for North Korean human rights, defectors are now finding their work hampered by the South Korean government. Under President Moon Jae-in, South Korea has adopted a reconciliatory approach toward North Korea and its dictator, Kim Jong Un: At the recent summit, the two sides agreed to “completely cease all hostile acts against each other,” including the broadcasting of propaganda over giant loudspeakers and balloon drops.
The Moon administration has also silenced outspoken defectors, such as Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to Britain. In April, agents from Moon’s National Intelligence Service blocked the cable network Channel A from filming a speech by Thae at a human rights conference, then forcibly ushered him away as he began to answer a reporter’s question. Defectors say it is reminiscent of former liberal President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, when the government quieted defectors in order to improve relations with the North. Suzanne Scholte, head of the U.S.-based North Korea Freedom Coalition, called the latest developments “devastating,” as “silence means death for North Koreans.”
For now, the rice bottle launches are allowed to continue, since they provide humanitarian aid to North Korea. Yet standing on the rocky shore of Ganghwa, Jung-oh expressed concern that a balloon launch later in the week might be stopped. The balloon launch, a project led by Sang-hak, would cap off the last day of the 15th annual North Korea Freedom Week, an observance promoting North Korean human rights. This year, Freedom Week was held at an opportune time: immediately following the Moon-Kim summit and just weeks ahead of President Trump’s planned June meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore. [Editor’s note: On Thursday morning, May 24, after this story went to press, President Trump announced in a letter that he was canceling his planned June 12 meeting with Kim.]