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


Seoul, South Korea
CNN

Near a table strewn with soldering bits, loose wires and electronic components, Choi’s computer screen tracks the wind conditions and the GPS location of some unlikely parcels: massive “smart” balloons he floats. North Korea.

From a small apartment in South Korea’s capital, Choi, who CNN identifies by a pseudonym for her privacy and security, has become a party. tit-for-tat balloon fight Tensions between the two Koreas on the Korean Peninsula have risen.

For years, South Korean activists and North Korean defectors have sent balloons to the North 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 forbidden in the impoverished population. An isolated country.

In response, North Korean officials have sent more than 1,000 balloons toward the South since May. Kim Yo JongThe powerful sister of North Korea’s leader has warned of “trouble” ahead.

Yoonjung Seo/CNN

Choi is pictured in an apartment rented by his activist group as a base of operations. Part of this image has been masked to protect the subject’s identity.

In 2020, South Korea passed a law criminalizing the passing of anti-North Korean propaganda leaflets across the border as the previous liberal government in Seoul pressed for engagement with Pyongyang.

But many campaigners defied it before the ruling It was stopped by the court last yearNorth Korean defectors responded to a complaint filed in the South, calling the law an excessive restriction on freedom of speech.

Choi, a co-founder of the Committee to Reform and Open North Korea, is among those who have defected from North Korea, who have vowed to continue sending balloons to their homeland.

Assembled by Choi’s team from their Seoul apartment, the balloons are a step up from basic balloons that randomly scatter their contents when deflated or popped.

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Charles Miller/CNN

The pamphlets contained declarations of independence by the North Korean people and propaganda messages against dictator Kim Jong Un.

Equipped with GPS trackers, enthusiasts can track these next-generation “smart” balloons in real-time on missions spanning hundreds of kilometers. According to its data, the team flew one of its balloons to China.

The team’s elliptical balloons are about 12 to 13 meters (about 40 to 42 feet) long, made of plastic and filled with hydrogen, Choi said. They carefully chose the thickness of the plastic so it would hold air and allow some hydrogen to leak out naturally, helping to control the balloons’ height, he added.

Sensors and small circuit boards attached to the balloons enable the balloons to travel at a certain height and a certain distance. “When the balloons float above 4,000 meters, the dispenser doesn’t work properly, so we have an extra bag of leaflets to drop when they reach a higher altitude,” Choi said. “It’s programmed to emit hydrogen gas depending on altitude.”

“I believe that North Korea can change when Kim Jong Un’s deity is destroyed, and sending these smart balloons is the way to achieve that,” Choi added.

“I am very proud that we contributed to the removal of the statue of Kim Jong Un.”

Committee for the Reform and Opening of North Korea

The graph illustrates the tracking of smart balloons launched by the team from April 2022 to April 2024. According to Choi, the wind directions are favorable for launching the balloons from April each year.

The smart balloons deployed by Choi’s team carry various payloads, some of which include automation.

In one version, the balloons carry a small, makeshift loudspeaker that looks like a camping lantern, held in place with zip ties and glue. Attached to a cushion, battery pack and a parachute, it blared propaganda as it floated to the ground, with a message declaring: “North Korea can only survive if the Workers’ Party is abolished.”

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Charles Miller/CNN

The balloons have loudspeakers attached to the rainbow parachute that play propaganda messages.

Balloons are sometimes equipped with an automatic flyer-dispensing device. They can carry around 1,500 campaign leaflets – the dispenser spits out quickly with the help of a timer and height adjustment device.

“We devised a method to disperse the leaflets over a large area of ​​50 to 300 kilometers (about 31 to 186 miles), making it very difficult for North Korean officials to collect all of them,” Choi said. “With our system, we can control leaflets falling every 300 meters or every kilometer and make sure people can see them.”

These features allow more control over the team’s equipment than the conventional balloons used by other enthusiasts. For example, smart balloons are designed to start spitting out leaflets at specific points based on wind speed and direction, Choi said — allowing distribution within target areas. They can also control the frequency of distribution of leaflets.

Yoonjung Seo/CNN

A delivery device attached to balloons that can travel hundreds of kilometers and deliver about 1,500 campaign leaflets per device.

While Choi buys some parts for the devices, he uses 3D printers to make others. Before setting up the organization in 2013, he completed his engineering studies at a North Korean university before defecting to the South — with YouTube videos and members of his team — helping to improve balloons sent to the North.

And it’s not his full-time job; He works elsewhere during the day, comes to the apartment after work, creates 3D-printed parts, and then spends up to six hours a day assembling them. Each smart balloon costs about $700 to make, he said.

Choi’s motivation, he said, is that his family still lives in North Korea. And he urged activist groups in South Korea to stop.

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“To critics of our activities, it’s like saying, ‘Let’s help perpetuate the dictatorship in South Korea,'” he said, adding that Seoul was under dictatorship for decades before the South transitioned to democracy in the 1980s.

The balloon fight has increased tensions between the two Koreas, technically Stay in the war – An armistice ended the Korean War that divided the peninsula in 1953, but no formal peace treaty was signed.

Relations between the two countries thawed somewhat in 2017 and 2018, allowing some South Korean elements. parts of its pop culture, The ascetic should penetrate into the land.

But the situation in North Korea deteriorated in the following years as leader Kim intensified weapons tests in defiance of United Nations sanctions and diplomatic talks failed. Strict rules for withdrawal In place in the north.

Meanwhile, the two countries are getting closer to their respective partners — North Korea recently signed a defense pact with Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korea is increasing cooperation with Japan and the United States.

On Tuesday, after South Korea discovered the latest batch of 350 debris balloons from North Korea, the country’s military warned of a possible relaunch. Loudspeaker campaign At the border – something it hasn’t done since 2018.

In past years, Seoul has used giant speakers to play propaganda and music along the heavily militarized border, including news reports and K-pop group Big Bang’s hit song “Bang Bang Bang.”

“Our military is ready to immediately launch campaigns against North Korea and will act flexibly according to the strategic and operational situation,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said, adding that restarting the loudspeakers “depends on North Korea’s actions.” .”

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