A Sock Drop on North Korea
Sending over socks by balloon to encourage their neighbors
Overcast hides the sun as the tour bus disgorges the bleary-eyed foreigners onto the parking lot of a deserted drive-in theater in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea.
Blinking and beating their hands together for warmth, the thirty-odd passengers—American, Canadian, English, Austrian, Australian and Indonesian—mill about in the frigid February breeze, talking and joking as they wait for a sock drop.
They are unfazed by the fact that they stand within a stone’s throw of the Demilitarized Zone, the most heavily-fortified land border on Earth. The undercover policemen and plain-clothed military personnel standing nearby have escaped their notice.
Fifth Balloon Launch
These expatriates are interested in one thing, and one thing only: the arrival of the stubby, short-bodied flatbed truck and its precious cargo. This is the North Korea Peace organization’s fifth balloon launch, and the shivering foreigners are today’s volunteers.
Mr. Lee, short and square-jawed with a strident voice, smokes a cigarette on the sidelines, chatting with his interpreter. With an orange parka and a bucket hat, he seems no different than any other middle-aged Korean man on the streets of Seoul or Incheon.
But Mr. Lee was not born in South Korea, nor was any member of his family. He is a defector, a refugee from the totalitarian regime north of the DMZ. He escaped the freezing, desperate wasteland of Pyongyang, fled south through unsympathetic China, laid low in Thailand for months, and finally arrived, a political refugee and legal immigrant, in sunnier South Korea—a country with little welcome for defectors.
And yet Mr. Lee is spending this precious Saturday away from his family to send a message of hope and peace to his compatriots in purgatory—pairs of socks and nonpolitical notes, boxed and carried across the DMZ by weather balloon.
“It’s a big deal that you’re here,” explains Sunny, one of Lee’s chief assistants and an administrator at North Korea Peace, the charitable organization who arranged the day’s activities. A round-faced, matronly woman in a scarf, woolen hat and overcoat, Sunny speaks to us in flawless English. “In South Korea they do not care too much about North Korean escapees, so they see that you are here, even though you are not Korean, and they think ‘Wow.’”
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Long awaited Truck
In the middle of Sunny’s welcoming speech, the long-awaited truck pulls to a stop a short distance from the bus. Strapped to the dirty white Kia Bongo are five deflated weather balloons,nineteen orange hydrogen tanks, and five medium-sized cardboard boxes.
The foreigners gather around as Mr. Lee and two burly assistants leap onto the truck and unload the unsealed boxes, dropping them to the ground. Demonstrating deftly, Lee loosens a yellow ribbon on one box, releasing the bottom flaps and sending a cascade of socks onto the cold concrete. A timer attached to the ribbon loosens it three hours after launch, and the socks tumble ten thousand feet through the raw winter air.
With luck, they will be found by enterprising North Koreans, who will wear them to stave off frostbite, or trade them for a month’s supply of corn. Mr. Lee then reads one of the attached missives, with Sunny translating. Mr. Lee wrote them himself. They do not lambaste the Kim regime or extol the virtues of democracy—they simply seek to give hope to the hopeless. “Remember that you are not forgotten. Keep trying. Do not give up. We love you.”
The two burly assistants unlimber a hydrogen tank as a gaggle of foreigners unrolls a weather balloon. Inflating it piecemeal, it resembles a gossamer strand of link sausage. When fully inflated, the balloon is an opaque cigar about thirty feet tall and six feet in circumference. It dips and weaves in the cold breeze, slamming into the nearby flatbed truck and puncturing itself. Willing bodies leap forward; the hole is patched with Scotch tape. Everyone takes turns holding the balloon in a semi-upright position. Mr. Lee and his assistants fasten a box of socks to it. A timer is clipped to the cords holding the bottom of the box together; in three hours, it will release its merciful load in the stratosphere above North Korea (wind and weather permitting).
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Four more balloons are inflated as the first balloon’s handlers struggle to maintain their grip. The balloon bucks like a bronco, straining to free itself of gravity’s shackles and flee skyward. After a brief photo-op with the tour bus, the NKP banner, and the five lopsided balloons, Mr. Lee takes hold of the first balloon and counts to three.
With one upward lunge, Mr. Lee and the volunteers fling the balloon into the air. It zooms aloft, several dozen square feet of helium yanking the cardboard box quickly higher. The wind catches the balloon almost immediately, bearing it away in a south-southeasterly direction. Not a promising sign, but the watchers on the ground are undeterred. One after the other, the remaining four balloons are launched.
The overcast has cleared somewhat and the skies are touched by muted sunlight. Soon all five of the balloons (the highest a mere speck against the glowing cirrus clouds) are drifting aloft. The volunteers crane their necks, shade their eyes with their hands, squinting as they level their cameras and try to take pictures.
Back on the Bus
Then it’s back on the bus for an hour-long stop at the Imjingak, a park dedicated to one of the last operating bridges across the Imjin River (which roughly parallels the DMZ’s southern border in this region of Korea). Here an impromptu memorial has been created for relatives of escaped defectors, still held in bondage just a few kilometers to the north.
Brightly colored streamers—prayers and good wishes scrawled upon them—are hung upon the age-bent barbed wire fence. Nearby, the rusted hulk of a steam locomotive rests on a dead-end siding—remnants of a thriving rail line between Seoul, Pyongyang, China and Russia.
In the souvenir shop at the entrance to the park, a kiddie theme park with a carousel and tilt-a-whirl sits incongruously. At the gift shop, a smiling middle-aged woman sells back-scratchers, foreign coins, maps of the Joint Security Area printed on bandannas, and a selection of mysteriously named “fine wines of North Korea.”
The day concludes with lunch at the Itaewon Galbi Restaurant in south-central Seoul. Here the volunteers are allowed a Q&A session with Mr. Lee. The questions range across the spectrum from innocuous to heart-stopping. Eyes widen and breath stops as Mr. Lee tells the tale of his hair-raising escape via China and Thailand.
Gooseflesh appears as he flatly announces that he is under routine surveillance by North Korean agents, who are undoubtedly nearby even as we sit and sip on our tofu soup.
(The restaurant is so famous for this soup that, not so long ago, President Lee Myung-Bak came all the way from City Hall to sample a bowl.)
It becomes difficult to remain objective when Lee relates the deplorable conditions in the Democratic People’s Republic. Rage boils beneath our skins as he delineates the tortures and inhumanities inflicted on dissidents and repatriated escapees. The Chinese government refuses to acknowledge North Korean defectors as refugees, instead labeling them “illegal migrants.”
They forcefully capture any North Korean fugitives they find within their borders and shunt them straight back to the DPRK. The penalties defectors face are brutally harsh. Public executions are common. Families are broken up. Pregnant women, Lee states emphatically, are routinely given forced abortions. Those remaining are sent to camps, where they do hard labor for twelve hours and attend reeducation classes for four more.
Lee himself is one of the lucky ones. Not only did he escape the DPRK, but he managed to save enough money to bribe and broker his family out as well. It was a close thing. Lee came within an inch of being arrested by Chinese secret police on a train to Shanghai. Though he was provided with a fake ID and papers by his Chinese contact, Lee was totally unable to speak Mandarin.
Chinese policeman were walking through the train cars, examining IDs and asking tough questions. Lee earnestly believed that his number was up. Raised in North Korea, and taught all his life that religion was merely another brand of Western propaganda, Lee nonetheless bowed his head in prayer. He prayed to God to spare him, save him.
A Great Miracle
And then, Lee told us, came a great miracle. A knife fight broke out in an adjacent car. The policemen, meters away from Lee and his fellow refugees, got the call on their cell phones. They slapped the ID cards back into their owners’ hands and raced for the next car. Lee was saved.
As he cooled his heels in Thailand for three months, waiting for a South Korean visa, Lee reflected on that night in the train. It had been no accident, he decided. God existed, and He had a plan. During those three months in Thailand, Lee figured it out. God had meant for him to help other North Koreans. In His wisdom, He had spared Lee so that he might become the shepherd of a starving, frozen flock.
Lee worked like a dog to bring his family to South Korea. In a country where immigrants are judged not by their worth as human beings but by their finances (and the affluence of their homeland), the penniless North Korean’s prospects were slim.
Many South Koreans treat defectors with the same disdain and prejudice as the poor, dark-skinned migrants from Southeast Asia. But Lee put his head down and stuck to it, until he’d saved enough to pay off the human traffickers in China. His family arrived in Korea, and Lee got down to business.
He founded the North Korea Peace organization, gathered a crowd of do-gooders to him, and got the word out on the streets and the Internet. He, his assistants, and a volunteer group of foreigners have been launching balloons into North Korean airspace ever since.
That February afternoon, thepeople on the ground watched as the balloons climbed higher into the hazy skies. The socks, and the flimsy sheets of white paper stapled to them, would inform their starving, luckless recipients that they had not been forgotten.
Balloons Keep Coming
There were people on the other side of the barbed-wire fence who genuinely cared. The socks and supplies would keep coming until the oppression finally ended. The balloons bucked and swirled in the wind, carrying the hopes and good wishes of the free people below, and vanished at last into the sun-tinged clouds.
Andrew Post is an erstwhile travel writer currently residing in South Korea (as an expatriate English teacher). He’s written for In the Know Traveler and The Expeditioner.
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