The Seekers of Power

Originally Published: March 27th, 2014 – When Park, Geun-Hye, the daughter of Korean authoritarian Park, Chung-Hee, announced her candidacy leading up to the 2012 presidential election, it surprised few in Korea. At the time, I, in a whisper, warned my friends and followers alike, that the appointment of a dictator’s daughter is apt to rekindle the pre-90’s czarism in South Korea. It seemed once again, like the familiar waves beating against a compelled shoreline, a fate, one of subjugation and paralyzing political disparity, seemingly destined to plague the people of Korea unendingly.

A political insider, a real player of the finest caliber in the political circles, the now President Park, back then seemed equally adept at swaying popular support as ‘taking out’ her political adversaries before they even knew they were in the game. Park understood that she could stay relevant and bathe in the adjunct popularity of her predecessor, then president, Mr. Lee, Myung-Bak, all the while putting on the usual theatrical show for the masses as his chief objector, concurrently, and indeed in reality, his back-room political collaborator.

In 2010, some called my soothsaying ‘sensational’ and thusly unsound. Well, now we are well into her administration. It’s clear that the kind old ladies with colourful numbered jackets and white gloves who paired up with the powerful, unnamed men in choked, begrimed back-rooms who dealt out the necessary political capital, have won. Unions and the franchise, lost.

In a dictatorship, transparency is an abstraction; foreign in its absoluteness. For the daughter of a dictator, the accountability and translucence fundamental to a robust democracy is but a superfluous academic pursuit. It is, to her, just a word that will, and indeed was (to) be pulled out and used during the stumping on a two-year campaign tour, but easily forgotten as she later took her place at the thrown of this fair Republic.

The masses here have elected autocrats and oligarchs, rebels and outsiders, and each time they end every new abbreviated dynasty with the same set of characters, mercenaries, or simply put politicians for hire, the lowest form of life in the free and democratic experiment. These one-term tyrants, Korea’s “profiteering republicans” leave office only to spend their remaining years fighting off courts and their political enemies.

If this adolescent democracy is to break this endless pattern of racketeering, they need to create a system by which the promise of affluence so low and the threat of successful and meaningful prosecution so high, as to terrorize any potential candidate in controlling their conduct while in office. Democracies are always at their best when there is a healthy distrust for the government by its people and a willing, capable ombudsman ready to defend the union.

Story Update: Park Geun-Hye, the 11th President of South Korea, and the first female, is currently suspended from her powers and duties amidst impeachment proceedings. On the 9th of December 2016, Park was impeached by the National Assembly on charges related to influence peddling by a top aide.

Story Update: On April 06th, 2018, Park was sentenced to 24 years in prison.


“We are sinful not only because we have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, but also because we have not yet eaten of the Tree of Life. The state in which we are is sinful, irrespective of guilt.” Franz Kafka.

A child walks along a barren countryside road in North Korea — not more than a few dozen kilometres from the Demilitarized Zone. A forest on her left has long been pillaged for fuel and an empty rice field on the right is bone dry from years of economic and agricultural mismanagement. She stumbles across a crashed balloon and a box with socks scattered around it. She hurriedly gathers up as many as her small frame can carry. She makes it home and presents these rare gifts to her mom, who later trades them for grain — enough for a month’s supply to feed the family.

That’s how those in South Korea involved in launching the giant balloons over the border envision the end result of their efforts.

Lee Ju-seong, a striking man, slightly shorter than the average South Korean, steps off of a chartered bus in Paju. He heads towards a truck that had been tailing us to this empty parking lot just a stone’s throw from razor wire and armed border guards. This man, unknown to most, walks with a purpose. He is later introduced to the group as a former North Korean now living in the South.

He is the very passionate organizer of today’s mission to launch aid into North Korea with giant helium balloons.

Reserved, strong-willed and proud are just a few words to describe this man. Though slightly introverted, there is a certain affability about him. I suspect that is how he coaxed so many of us into joining him so early this morning.

The apologue of how Mr. Lee managed to escape to the South and why he does what he does with the balloon missions to the North are closely related. Upon fleeing from the cold, totalitarian grasp of the Kim Jong-il regime in 2005, Mr. Lee (as he is often addressed) settled in a small apartment in Seoul and from that day forward seemed entirely focused on one thing: His goal and mission in life had now become getting aid into the North, his former home, and now where many of his friends and family still live.

His methods, regarded as infamous and unconventional, seem to be effective. So much so that today his police escort is never out of eyesight for fear of assassination, something that he hadn’t imagined when he escaped from his homeland seven years ago.

In 2005, upon discovering all was not right with what was being broadcast to him and his fellow citizens by the heretical incumbency of the Kim clan, and facing a potential long detention, torture, or a death sentence, Mr. Lee fled the only thing he knew. He left his wife, his two children, his mother and brothers. He waded through the cold, shallow waters of the Yalu River, the border between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the People’s Republic of China. Over the next three months, he made his way to friendlier nations while avoiding Chinese authorities, known to repatriate defectors from North Korea without question.

After making it to South Korea, he spent another three months being debriefed by theNational Intelligence Service. Afterwards, he was given a small amount of money and the chance to relearn everything he thought he knew. Mr. Lee was in for many surprises, among them having to relearn an entire history of his nation and world geography.

After establishing himself, Mr. Lee sent for his wife and two young children. Their escape was just as dangerous and uncertain as his, but they were strong, determined and their perseverance won out. However, he and his family’s escape came at a cost that he had not expected. Friends and other family members who hadn’t yet managed to escape had paid dearly for his actions. Leaving the secretive nation is considered a crime for the refugees and likely also for those friends and family members who knew about it or helped.

Today, Mr. Lee arranges the equipment to the ready. Slowly the 10 balloons fill with the hydrogen gas and the boxes are securely fastened.As the volunteers line up the 10 balloons for one final photo, many of them reflect just how much this gift will help those that find this precious cargo in just a matter of hours. The consignment that is hidden within the 10 boxes now on their way to North Korea are American– and South Korean-made socks.

When I first met Mr. Lee, on a chilly day in Seoul last February, I asked him, “Why socks? Why not food or money?” He explained that often food that is smuggled into North Korea by balloon is discovered by North Korean soldiers on patrol and poisoned and later blamed on the South Korean government. Currency is also something that presents a set of problems for those who discover it. American, South Korean and Japanese currency is often the target of frequent crackdowns and results in extreme punishment for those in possession of it. Socks can be hidden easily, traded quickly, or used by those who discover the care packages.

The mood on the way back to Seoul is somber. Very little is said. We all watch one of the many documentaries made about North Korea on the bus. Mr. Lee leads the group of mostly foreigners to a restaurant back in Itaewon for some late lunch and he answers questions over some ambrosial Korean fare.

I can’t speak for the others, but I certainly feel a wave of guilt come over myself while listening to the hardships of North Korea firsthand while eating “galbi,” Korean-style ribs, and endless servings of side dishes. His stories echo the hundreds I have heard from countless other refugees and defectors. Terrible stories of sacrifices I couldn’t imagine making. Stories of coming across parentless “wandering swallows,” children abandoned and left to fend for themselves. I have been to nine balloon launches and now act as the managing director of a Korean nongovernmental organization because of these stories. Knowing that these actions that I do here have positive outcomes in a country that is in desperate need of our assistance gives me the drive to help out in any way that I am capable of.

Occasionally, I am asked by friends why I do what I do for North Korea, a country I’ve never been to. I answer them this way: I do it because I have listened to a North Korean woman talking about her mother, her brother and cousins trapped in the North. Never being able to see her brother or mourn her mother. She is 78. While she is a strong lady, the fight is fleeting in her. She looked into my eyes and I promised her that I would make it my mission, that I would make it my fight. The woman and her brother’s passing made the urge to fight hard for North Korea stronger.

Getting up the last Saturday of each month at 5 a.m. is nothing compared to the sacrifice that others make in the name of righteousness and freedom. Mr. Lee’s passion and his conviction to do right and pay his promise and good fortune forward is my motivation. Being on the bus bound for the border in the company of these dedicated and compassionate people only furthers my resolve.

We all know what is going on, but many have yet to act — and most never will. Gilbert Parker once said, “In all secrets there is a kind of guilt.” This sense of guilt felt by me isn’t as a result of a secret, but rather as a result of an expressed apathy that I fear I will never fully understand.

The Darkening Yard

The travel writer Pearl S. Buck, a favourite author of mine, once wrote, “Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness.” This profound measure of wisdom has always had an unspoken authority over my feral and fierce subconscious, and what Buck so eloquently identified is no more evident than in South Korea.

Since my arrival in Korea over nine years ago, I’ve dedicated my life to simplicity. Work is a triviality, a necessary evil I both loathe and keep in check. Escaping from the unceasing burn of Seoul’s neon lights and making my way to villages and islands — those obscured by Korea’s towering peaks and divorced from the mainland by jagged bluffs is a remedy for my feeling of urban entrapment. Perpetually searching out the unseen, I’m always trying to find peace in the isolation and tranquility of Korea’s gifted beauty. This travelogue is a record of one of those pilgrimages, one of my excursions to places of placidity and majesty.

A Simpler Life: Our title comes from the Korean poem “A pair of shoes in the yard” by Moon Tae-jun, which has haunted me for many years. The verse speaks of sadness for our life of sacrifice; a sacrifice for lavish consumerism, sanctioned by the overlords parasitically existing off our interest payments. “The darkening yard” is the epiphanic moment in this tale: It is the start of a soul’s meditative journey to inoculate itself from the trappings of the predictable, insipid, bourgeois urban lifestyle — the beginning of a search for the stillness promised in the Land of the Morning Calm.

The national bourgeois-collective here, with their marked concerns for material interests and a saddening apathy of passion, indeed do forego the small joys in search of faster phones and fine cars. The darkening yard is my search for Korea’s simple life, and that search started along the peninsula’s southern coast, nestled among the minute islands where fishing and farming are still fundamental ways of life. Free of the familiar arsenal of franchises polluting Korea’s growing megacities, these communities are sleepy and serene — exceptional places to relish the small joys of life Buck spoke of.

I recently discovered one such island whose inhabitants numbered so few that on the day I spent there I saw no more than ten locals. Oedaldo is charmingly known as the “lovers’ island,” a name sure to eventually draw hoards of tourists to its humble shores. Simple and unassuming hanoks dot the island, with most being run by elderly retirees who have re-purposed the buildings for straggling tourists who sometimes get stuck overnight. Though even with few creature comforts, these places are quite welcoming. If you visit Oedaldo, it’s likely that you’ll be spending much of your time walking the uncut coast-line that gracefully ascends from the murky waters that wrap the entirety of the island.

Purposeful labor, Purposeful joys: As I walked, I was reminded of the fact that far too many people slog, scurry, and sacrifice their well-being in hopes of bettering only the mirage of a meaningful existence. Later, only after decades of labour, in a moment of honest reflection do they discover that what they had was merely shreds of a life: a leased car, an apartment that they do not own, and a short vacation every few years. These things are the yield of a life sacrificed under the backbreaking hum of florescent lights and the glaring eye of a sweaty overseer. As I wandered around Oedaldo, I found I both respected and envied the inhabitants of this fine, little island: Life there is lived by means of toil and the strength of a person’s spirit. Nothing comes easy, as much of their food is either harvested locally from their farms or drawn from the unforgiving sea. Those living on Oedaldo have chosen to embrace the small joys, such as having the Yellow Sea at their feet and the torrid, amber sun on their backs. There may be fewer than a dozen cars on the island, but with everything no more than a 20-minute walk away, cars seemed like an unnecessary distraction — merely a source of noise pollution reserved for laggard, lethargic mainlanders.

These southern islands and undiscovered villages are the places we should be seeing in ads, but are always sidestepped in favour of sparkling fashionistas and tiresome tourist venues. They’re abundant, just waiting for you outside Korea’s capital region, and they’re the closest approximation to what the first travellers must have witnessed when settling this region. Korea is a beautiful place, and breaking free of the noise and light pollution of modernity will unveil it for you.

“I don’t consider myself a nature photographer; in that I am an amateur. I do love nature and it is within me to photograph what I love.”