Wading Through Shallow Waters: FROM NORTH KOREA TO FREEDOM IN THE SOUTH
“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.