A giant hydrogen balloon catches the wind and floats swiftly upwards. The balloon travels 26 kilometers in total. It passes minefields, barbed wire, and steep mountains before releasing its payload on the lesser-known side of the world’s most militarized border: information from the outside world. Pamphlets scatter in the air and flutter down to the ground, where ideally they will find their way into the hands of a curious North Korean villager.
This is communication with North Korea: balloons equipped with GPS trackers, shortwave radio transmissions, and smuggled DVDs of South Korean soap operas. For the most part, these communications enter an information black hole with no feedback.
North Korea remains one of the most isolated countries on the planet. However, in the past five years, the flow of information in and out of the country has dramatically increased. This is, in part, due to the efforts of a myriad of civilian groups in South Korea.
“Government efforts to get in touch with average North Koreans are still quite limited,” says Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korean studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Civilian efforts are, generally speaking, more active.”
These groups have a variety of motives. Some overtly encourage revolution and defection. Others, such as North Korean Peace, focus on messages of friendship. The group uses balloons to send warm socks to North Korea. A leaflet is affixed to the socks: “The world has not forgotten the current hardships of our fellow brothers and sisters in North Korea. From all countries, we pray for your survival until the day of reunification. We love you.”
Reverend Eric Foley, leader of an evangelical group called Seoul uSA, helps organize over eight hundred balloon launches each year. His group has sent around 40,000 New Testaments into North Korea. There are an estimated 300,000 Christians in the country today, who Foley says are “enormously persecuted”. Seoul USA uses balloon launches, among other methods, to communicate support for North Korean believers.
Balloon launches may seem to some like a quixotic attempt to effect change in the world’s last hereditary Communist dictatorship. However, the North Korean government’s response shows that they, at least, take these balloons quite seriously. KCNA, the official North Korean government mouthpiece, released a statement threatening “direct fire” on individuals launching balloons. The statement called the balloon launches “a treacherous deed and wanton challenge” amounting to “ongoing psychological warfare”.
“One of the ways you can measure the effectiveness of these interventions is by paying attention to the North Korean reaction,” says Evans Revere, former senior US diplomat and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institute. That reaction has become much more emotional and hyperbolic in the past year, Revere says. “The level of rhetoric has really escalated.”
While experts agree that the balloon campaigns are clearly having an effect, without access to ordinary citizens it’s impossible to accurately judge how influential these actions are. For now, activists like Foley will continue to launch their balloons, sending them off on a wing and a prayer.