SEOUL - Humanitarian groups in South Korea are using the ocean current to send needed food and information from the outside world into impoverished regions of North Korea.
On Ganghwa Island in the Yellow Sea, located just south of the inter-Korean border, a group of North Korean defectors and volunteers with humanitarian groups this week launched aid packages containing rice, medicine, U.S. dollars and banned information. The ocean’s current, they say, will carry the sealed bottles to the cities and towns along the west coast of North Korea.
“If we set the date and time right, it will get there 100%,” said Park Jung-oh, with the Kuen Saem Education Center in Seoul that helps defectors from the communist North assimilate into life in the democratic South.
Bottles vs balloons
Park said the ocean current is a safer and more reliable delivery system than launching balloons into the wind, a method that other North Korea activist groups have used to send packages containing mostly South Korean movies, television dramas and news critical of the Kim Jong Un government that is prohibited in the North.
In 2014, North and South Korean forces exchanged gunfire when an activist group from the South launched balloons full of leaflets into the North. That incident nearly disrupted plans at the time to hold a reunion for families that have been separated by the division of the Korean Peninsula at the end of World War II.
The activists have received little attention this year from either Seoul or Pyongyang as inter-Korean relations are improving and diplomatic talks appear to be progressing to peacefully resolve the North’s nuclear threat.
This week, the group involved in floating bottles of aid to the North sent over 500 kilograms of rice and 400 computer memory sticks full of South Korean movies and foreign news programs that are also not permitted in the North. In the last three years they have performed this operation 53 times, and will come out again in about 15 days.
The United Nations reports that over 40% of North Korea's population is undernourished. Conditions in the country have improved since the 1990s when failures in the communist agricultural system led to a severe famine and millions died of starvation. But food shortages are still common and there are concerns that sanctions on most exports, meant to pressure Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program, are increasing poverty and hunger in the country.
Many of the aid activists are defectors who escaped poverty and repression in North Korea, and have become advocates to bring international attention to the widespread human rights abuses still going on in their homeland.
Jung Kwang-il, a North Korean defector who recently met with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House, has included a copy of the U.S. president’s fiery address last year to the United Nations as part of the information package being sent.
In his speech, Mr. Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” if the Kim government continues to threaten the world with its nuclear weapons development program. He also strongly criticized the North Korean leader for the pervasive starvation and oppression in the country.
“So the message that we are sending to them is that the U.S. President knows that you are living in these harsh conditions,” said Jung, who leads a North Korean human rights activist group in Seoul called No Chain.
The North Korean defectors involved in this unconventional aid effort have raised money and donated their time to help those most in need in the country they left behind.
“It is very difficult when doing it, but after sending it I feel proud,” said Kim Yong-hwa, who is also a defector-turned-activist with the North Korean Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea in Seoul.
Some of their support comes from Christian churches that want to send bibles into the communist North, where religious teaching is also highly restricted.
A 2014 U.N. human rights report documented a network of political prisons in North Korea and numerous cases of state sponsored murder, torture and rape. In the U.N. Security Council, China, North Korea closest ally, is believed to be holding up a motion passed by the General Assembly to refer the Kim Jing Un government to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.