Tuesday, July 23, 2024

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


Seoul, South Korea

Next to a desk scattered with bits of solder, loose wires and electronic parts, Choi’s computer screen tracks the wind conditions and the GPS location of some unexpected package: huge “smart” balloons he sent afloat. north korea.

From a small apartment in the South Korean capital, Choi, whom CNN knows by a pseudonym to preserve his privacy and safety, is one of the parties involved in what has become Mutual balloon feud Between the two Koreas, which increases tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

For many years, South Korean activists and North Korean defectors have sent balloons loaded with propaganda materials critical of dictator Kim Jong-un, and USB sticks filled with K-pop songs and South Korean TV shows — all of which are strictly banned in poor and high-income countries. An isolated nation

In response, North Korean authorities have sent more than 1,000 balloons southward since May carrying garbage, waste and maggots, further inflaming tensions. Kim Yoo JungThe powerful sister of North Korea’s leader warned of “trouble” ahead.

Yeonjung Seo/CNN

Choi was photographed in the apartment his activist group rented as its base of operations. Part of this image has been hidden to protect the identity of the person concerned.

In 2020, South Korea passed a law making it a crime to send anti-North Korean propaganda leaflets across the border, while pushing the previous liberal government in Seoul to engage with Pyongyang.

But many activists challenged the ruling before it was issued The court struck it down last yearwhich described the law as an excessive restriction of freedom of expression, in response to a complaint filed by North Korean defector activists in the South.

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

The balloons collected by Choi’s group from their residential base in Seoul are a step forward from primitive balloons that randomly scatter their contents when they crash or explode.

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Charles Miller/CNN

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

Equipped with GPS trackers, activists can monitor the next generation of “smart” balloons in real time during flights that often extend hundreds of kilometres. The group once tracked one of its balloons that drifted to China, according to its data.

The group’s rectangular-shaped balloons are about 12 to 13 meters (about 40 to 42 feet) long, made of plastic and filled with hydrogen, Choi said. He added that they carefully chose the thickness of the plastic so that it could withstand the wind and allow some hydrogen to escape naturally, which helps control the height of the balloons.

Small sensors and circuit boards attached to the balloons help them travel at a certain height and for a certain distance. “If the balloons float above 4,000 metres, the dispenser won’t work properly, so we keep an extra bag of fliers to drop when they reach very high altitudes,” Choi said. “It is programmed to release hydrogen gas depending on the altitude.”

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

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

North Korea Reform and Opening Up Committee

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

The smart balloons sent by Choi’s group carry a number of different payloads, including some robotic payloads.

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

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Charles Miller/CNN

The balloons carry loudspeakers, mounted on a rainbow canopy, broadcasting propaganda messages.

Balloons are sometimes equipped with an automatic leaflet dispenser. They can carry about 1,500 flyers, which the distributor quickly deploys with the help of a timer and height adjusting device.

“We devised a way to distribute the leaflets over a large area, covering between 50 to 300 kilometers (about 31 to 186 miles), making it very difficult for North Korean authorities to collect them all,” Choi said. “Using our system, we can control leaflets falling every 300 meters or every kilometre, and make sure more people can see them.”

These features allow the group greater control over their devices than typical balloons used by other activists. For example, the smart balloons are designed to start releasing leaflets at specific points based on wind speed and direction, Choi said, allowing them to be distributed within targeted areas. They can also control the frequency with which leaflets are distributed.

Yeonjung Seo/CNN

A balloon-mounted distribution device that can travel hundreds of kilometers and distribute about 1,500 flyers per device.

While Choi buys some hardware parts, he uses 3D printers to manufacture other parts. He credits his engineering studies at a North Korean university before his escape to the South – and his YouTube videos and the rest of his group – with helping him improve existing balloons sent to the North, before setting up the organization in 2013.

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. He said each smart balloon costs about $700 to make.

He said Choi’s motive was that his family still lived in North Korea. He expressed anger at those in South Korea who urged activist groups to stop.

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“For those who criticize our activities, it is like saying: Let us help maintain the dictatorship in South Korea,” he said, referring to decades of authoritarianism in Seoul before the South transitioned to democracy in the 1980s.

The balloon dispute saw tensions escalate between the two Koreas, which technically… Stay at war – The armistice ended the Korean War that divided the peninsula in 1953, but no formal peace treaty was ever signed.

Relations between the two countries improved somewhat in 2017 and 2018, allowing some South Korean elements, including Parts of its popular culture, To infiltrate the isolated nation.

But the situation in North Korea deteriorated in the following years as leader Kim ramped up weapons testing in defiance of UN sanctions and diplomatic talks collapsed, prompting… Strict return rules In its place in the north.

At the same time, the two countries are growing closer to their partners — North Korea recently signed a defense agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and South Korea is intensifying its cooperation with Japan and the United States.

On Tuesday, after South Korea discovered the latest batch of 350 garbage balloons from North Korea, the South Korean military warned it may resume work. Promotional broadcast over loudspeakers At the border – something it has not done since 2018.

In past years, Seoul has used giant loudspeakers to blast propaganda and music across the heavily armed border — including news reports and the hit song “Bang Bang Bang” by Korean pop group Big Bang.

“Our military is ready to begin anti-North Korea propaganda broadcasts immediately and will act flexibly in accordance with the strategic and operational situation,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said, adding that the resumption of loudspeakers “is due to North Korea’s actions.” “.