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Fighting Kim Jong Un with balloons

Fabian Kretschmer Seoul
October 2, 2017

As the trial in Kim Jong Nam's murder case got underway in Malaysia on Monday, there's no doubt in North Korean dissident Park Sang Hak's mind as to who the real culprit was. Fabian Kretschmer reports from Seoul.

Südkorea Luftballon Aktivismus
Image: picture-alliance/AP/L. Jin-man

For Park Sang Hak, the ghastly murder of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un's sibling Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur airport was more than mere news. The incident evoked traumatic memories for the 49-year-old who himself has been on the hit list of the Pyongyang regime for years.

Park, a slender man with nervous looks, is generally jittery about sharing his whereabouts. To talk to DW, he invited this writer to a small library located on the outskirts of the South Korean capital Seoul. "My life is always in danger," said the activist, adding that his goal was to survive the North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un.

Read more: Kim Jong Nam murder trial: Women plead not guilty

Constant threats

Park Sang Hak's worries about threats to his life are not farfetched. Six years ago, a North Korean refugee had arranged a meeting with the activist. The two were supposed to meet in broad daylight at a busy intersection. But when he was on his way to the meeting, Park received a phone call from the South Korean intelligence, informing him that the person he was going to meet had been arrested.

Nordkorea |Dissident Park Sang-hak
'My life is always in danger,' says Park Sang HakImage: picture-alliance dpa

A sympathizer of the North Korean regime, the alleged refugee was carrying deadly poison, concealed as a ballpoint pen. He was promised around $10,000 for carrying out the assassination and Pyongyang is suspected to be behind the attempt.

Since then, Park has continued to receive death threats, also targeting his wife and son.

The threats have not deterred Park Sang Hak from pursuing his radical propaganda campaign against Pyongyang, drawing the wrath of the cloistered North Korean cabal. Flyers, books and transistor radios with shortwave reception form part of Park's weapons. The activist packs them into specially prepared, cigar-shaped balloons - and flies them across the heavily-militarized border into North Korea. Nothing scares the Kim regime more than a free flow of information to its isolated people.

Activist Park is convinced that his flyers save lives. 20 years ago, he himself came across one - sent as part of the South Korean military's psychological warfare campaign. A student of electrical engineering in Pyongyang at the time, Park learned for the first time about the notorious internment camps run by his country's leadership.

Read more: Tortured, beaten, starved: life in a North Korean gulag

He also became aware of the fact that two of his countrymen had fled successfully to South Korea - a prosperous country that guarantees individual freedoms and the rule of law. For Park, it was still an outrageous thought.

The first lady of North Korean news

A stroke of fate

Park himself had no reason to flee at that time. He came from a privileged family; his father was among the few people in the country who even owned imported Mercedes cars.

Shortly before receiving his doctorate, he was offered a coveted post at the Propaganda Department of the North Korean government. His mission was to control and monitor North Koreans' access to information. Park was then unaware that the skills he was learning as part of his job would benefit him in the future.

Park's father feared in 1999 that there was a conspiracy to kill them. So they decided to flee the country overnight. A severe famine shook North Korea at the time, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

If one had the right contacts, it was easier to organize travel permits, given the generally chaotic situation. Customs officials collected bribes and looked the other way, allowing the two to cross over into China without any problems. From there, they moved on to Seoul.

Read more: Why Trump won't 'totally destroy' North Korea

Park could have led a comfortable life there as an intellectual, but in 2003 a refugee from his hometown told him about the fate of Park's remaining relatives.

"My two uncles had been tortured and they died as a result; my fiancée was terribly mutilated; my cousin disappeared without a trace," said Park. It marked the start of his radical activism, to which he says he has devoted the rest of his life.

'Kim is behind the attack'

As the trial in Kim Jong Nam's murder case got underway in Malaysia on Monday, October 2, there is no doubt in Park's mind as to who the real culprit was.

"I am 100 percent sure Kim Jong Un was behind the attack." Kim Jong Nam's mere existence had been a threat to his half-brother, Park said. "Kim Jong Nam is the first-born child of Kim Jong Il and according to Korean tradition, he was entitled to the 'throne,' even if he never laid claim to it," the activist pointed out.

Many North Koreans do not even know that Kim Jong Un has siblings, he noted.

Sometimes Park wonders how his life would have turned out if he had never left North Korea. "Even if I would have had a comfortable life in Pyongyang, I do not think I would have been happy in North Korea. In Seoul, I have learned to appreciate the value of freedom."

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