Balloon dispute: North Korean defector sends ‘smart’ balloons home from South

Seoul, South Korea

Next to a desk littered with solder bits, loose wires and electronic parts, Choi’s computer screen tracks the wind conditions and GPS locations of some unlikely packages: huge “smart” balloons he has sent floating toward North Korea. .

From a small apartment in the South Korean capital, Choi, whom CNN identifies by a pseudonym for his privacy and security, is one of the parties involved in what has become a dispute between the two Koreas, escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

For many years, South Korean activists and North Korean defectors have sent balloons to the North, loaded with propaganda material critical of dictator Kim Jong Un and USB flash drives filled with K-pop songs and South Korean television shows, all of which are strictly prohibited in the impoverished and highly isolated nation.

In response, North Korean authorities have sent more than 1,000 balloons south since May, carrying trash, debris and worms, fueling tensions as Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korea’s leader, warned of “trouble.” ” in the future.

Yoonjung Seo/CNN

Choi is pictured in the apartment rented by his activist group as a base of operations. A portion of this image has been blacked out to protect the identity of the subject.

In 2020, South Korea passed a law criminalizing the sending of anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets across the border, as Seoul’s former liberal government pushed for compromise with Pyongyang.

But many activists challenged the ruling before it was overturned by a court last year, which called the law an excessive restriction on freedom of expression in response to a complaint filed by North Korean defecting activists in the South.

Choi, co-founder of the Committee for the Reform and Opening of North Korea, is among North Korean defectors who have vowed to continue sending balloons to their homeland.

The balloons assembled by Choi’s group in their Seoul apartment are a step up from rudimentary balloons that randomly disperse their contents when they collide or explode.

Charles Miller/CNN

The leaflets include declarations of freedom for the North Korean people and propaganda messages against dictator Kim Jong Un.

Equipped with GPS trackers, activists can monitor these next-generation “smart” balloons in real time on journeys that often span hundreds of kilometers. According to their data, the group once tracked one of their balloons that traveled to China.

The group’s oblong-shaped balloons are 12 to 13 meters (40 to 42 feet) long, made of plastic and filled with hydrogen, Choi said. They carefully chose the thickness of the plastic so that it can withstand wind and allow some hydrogen to seep in naturally, helping to control the balloons’ altitude, she added.

Sensors and small circuit boards attached to the balloons help the balloons travel at a certain altitude and a certain distance. “If the balloons float too much above 4,000 meters, the dispenser will not work properly, so we keep an extra bag of brochures to throw when it reaches too high an altitude,” Choi said. “It is programmed to release hydrogen gas depending on the altitude.”

“I think North Korea can change when the deification of Kim Jong Un is broken, and sending these smart balloons is the way to achieve that,” Choi added.

“I feel very proud to have contributed to dismantling the idolatry of Kim Jong Un.”

The Committee for the Reform and Opening up of North Korea

The map illustrates the monitoring of smart balloons launched by the group from April 2022 to April 2024. According to Choi, wind directions become favorable for launching balloons starting in April each year.

The smart balloons sent by Choi’s group carry different payloads, including some automated ones.

In one version, the balloons carry a small makeshift speaker that looks like a camping lantern, held in place with zip ties and glue. Attached to a cushion, a battery and a parachute, it blares propaganda as it floats to the ground, with a message declaring: “North Korea can only survive if the Workers’ Party is abolished.”

Charles Miller/CNN

The balloons carry speakers, attached to a rainbow parachute, that play propaganda messages.

Balloons are sometimes equipped with an automatic leaflet dispensing device. They can carry about 1,500 advertising leaflets, which the dispenser quickly spits out with the help of a timer and an altitude adjustment device.

“We have devised a method to disperse the leaflets over a wide area, spanning 50 to 300 kilometers (31 to 186 miles), making it very difficult for North Korean authorities to collect them all,” Choi said. “With our system, we can control the leaflets to drop every 300 meters or every kilometer, which ensures that more people can see them.”

These features allow the group to have more control over their devices than the typical balloons used by other activists. For example, smart balloons are designed to start spitting out leaflets at specific points based on wind speed and direction, Choi said, supposedly allowing them to spread out within target areas. They can also control the frequency of leaflet distribution.

Yoonjung Seo/CNN

A dispensing device, attached to balloons, that can travel hundreds of kilometers and distribute around 1,500 propaganda leaflets per device.

Choi buys some parts for the devices and uses 3D printers to make the rest. He credits his engineering studies at a North Korean university before his escape to the South – and the YouTube videos and the rest of his group – with helping him improve the balloons that were already sent to the North, before creating the organization in 2013.

And this is not his full-time job; He works elsewhere during the day, comes to the apartment after work, makes 3D printed parts, and then assembles them for up to six hours a day. Each smart balloon costs about $700 to make, she said.

Choi’s motivation, he said, is that his family still lives in North Korea. And she became angry at those in South Korea who have urged activist groups to stop.

“To those who criticize our activities, it’s like saying, ‘Let’s help maintain the dictatorship in South Korea,'” he said, referring to decades of authoritarianism in Seoul before the South’s transition to democracy in the 1980s.

The dispute over the balloons has caused tensions to rise between the two Koreas, which are technically still at war: an armistice ended the Korean War that divided the peninsula in 1953, but no formal peace treaty was ever signed.

Relations between the two countries thawed somewhat in 2017 and 2018, allowing some South Korean elements, including parts of its pop culture, to seep into the hermit nation.

But the situation in North Korea deteriorated in subsequent years as leader Kim stepped up weapons tests in defiance of United Nations sanctions and diplomatic talks collapsed, prompting strict rules to be reimposed on the North.

Meanwhile, both nations are moving closer to their respective partners: North Korea recently signed a defense deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korea stepped up its cooperation with Japan and the United States.

On Tuesday, after South Korea detected the latest batch of 350 garbage balloons from North Korea, the country’s military warned that it could restart propaganda broadcasts over loudspeakers at the border, something it has not done since 2018.

In recent years, Seoul has used giant speakers to play propaganda and music across the heavily militarized border, including news reports and K-pop group Big Bang’s hit song, “Bang Bang Bang.”

“Our military is ready to immediately start propaganda broadcasts against North Korea and will operate flexibly in accordance with the strategic and operational situation,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said, adding that whether the loudspeakers resume depends “on the actions of North Korea. .”

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