On a mountaintop near the heavily fortified North Korean border, a group of human rights activists stuffs three large plastic bags with anti-Pyongyang leaflets, dollar bills and USB memory sticks loaded with popular South Korean soap operas and K-pop music.
They then strap the bags and a giant placard condemning North Korea’s ballistic missile launches to cylindrical 7m-tall helium balloons, which they release in the hope they will drift deep into the hermit kingdom.
It is the latest stunt by Fighters for Free North Korea, an activist group led by North Korean defector Park Sang-hak, who has for the past decade been at the vanguard of the propaganda campaign against the secretive Communist state.
“North Korea is the worst feudal society. It would surprise even Marx — North Koreans remain slaves of the three generations of the Kim dynasty,” says Mr Park. “The three Kims are above God there, although they killed millions of North Koreans through famine, war and concentration camps.”
Mr Park’s mission is to destroy the personality cult around Kim Jong Un, the North’s young supreme leader, by challenging his monopoly on information. North Korean defectors have accelerated their campaigns to float information into the country since Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test in January, while Seoul has also escalated its psychological warfare against Pyongyang, resuming its propaganda blasts through loudspeakers across the border.
Although North Korea has survived years of international sanctions, rights groups believe the information war they are waging could eventually help topple the oppressive regime.
“We believe education is the key to assisting the North Korean people. We do not believe that the North Korean human rights catastrophe will be aided by military action or UN diplomacy,” says Thor Halvorssen, head of the US-based non-profit Human Rights Foundation. “As North Koreans consume outside content, they learn that everything they have been taught is a lie and that there is something better beyond their borders. Once enough North Koreans come to this realisation, the regime will no longer be able to sustain itself.”
Despite tight state control, North Koreans’ demand for outside information has increased sharply since nearly 1m people died of starvation in the mid-1990s. News from beyond its borders has been making its way into North Korea in various ways and in greater volume amid the growing availability of televisions, radios, computers and mobile phones, activists say.
“The younger generation does not have the same religious belief in the Kim dynasty that their parents and grandparents had, and they will not tolerate this system for long,” says Mr Halvorssen.
Human rights abuses remains widespread in the world’s most totalitarian society, with the US State Department in July blacklisting some officials involved in extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and the running of prison camps that are believed to house up to 120,000 North Koreans. Washington also levied its first financial sanctions against Kim Jong Un in July to punish him for human rights abuses.
Kim In-sung, researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, says North Koreans’ political rights have deteriorated amid increased surveillance since Kim Jong Un came to power in late 2011. But the international community remains indifferent to their problems, says Kang Cheol-hwan, a prominent defector who wrote about human right abuses after escaping a North Korean concentration camp.
“I believe we are nearing an era in which bottom-up pressure can be piled on the regime,” says Mr Kang. “But it will never go down unless international society does something to weaken [the North’s] absolute control over information.”
In March South Korea passed the North Korean Human Rights Act after years of debate over how to deal with the regime, allowing the establishment of a foundation to research and record North Korean human rights abuses and to fund non-governmental groups working in the field.
But rights groups are not pinning much hope on the new legislation, although they believe increased information flows into North Korea are bringing changes as seen in the recent defections of elite North Koreans.
In the first seven months of this year, the number of North Korean defectors rose by about 15 per cent to 814, with many fleeing their country for political reasons rather than economic, according to Seoul’s unification ministry. The defectors include North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UK and a group of 13 North Korean restaurant workers in China, dealing an embarrassing blow to Pyongyang.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye said last week that they signalled a “serious fracture” within the North Korean regime, although experts say this does not necessarily mean Kim Jong Un himself is losing his grip on power.
Not all South Koreans are supportive of the increased propaganda campaigns. Liberals and residents of border towns worry that such activities risk provoking renewed conflict with Pyongyang, which has threatened artillery attacks against leafleting activists.
“But it is only North Koreans who can bring down the dictatorship. They should know who and what caused their hardship,” says Mr Park. “It is hard to expect them to rise against Kim Jong Un soon because they are brainwashed and society remains tightly controlled. But we should never give up telling them the truth.”