Fighting Kim Jong Un's regime with balloons

As the trial in Kim Jong Nam's murder case got underway in Malaysia on Monday, there's no doubt in North Korean dissident Park Sang Hak's mind as to who the real culprit was. Fabian Kretschmer reports from Seoul.

For Park Sang Hak, the ghastly murder of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un's sibling Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur airport was more than mere news. The incident evoked traumatic memories for the 49-year-old who himself has been on the hit list of the Pyongyang regime for years.

Politics | 22.02.2017

Park, a slender man with nervous looks, is generally jittery about sharing his whereabouts. To talk to DW, he invited this writer to a small library located on the outskirts of the South Korean capital Seoul. "My life is always in danger," said the activist, adding that his goal was to survive the North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un.

Read more: Kim Jong Nam murder trial: Women plead not guilty

Constant threats

Park Sang Hak's worries about threats to his life are not farfetched. Six years ago, a North Korean refugee had arranged a meeting with the activist. The two were supposed to meet in broad daylight at a busy intersection. But when he was on his way to the meeting, Park received a phone call from the South Korean intelligence, informing him that the person he was going to meet had been arrested.

Nordkorea |Dissident Park Sang-hak

'My life is always in danger,' says Park Sang Hak

A sympathizer of the North Korean regime, the alleged refugee was carrying deadly poison, concealed as a ballpoint pen. He was promised around $10,000 for carrying out the assassination and Pyongyang is suspected to be behind the attempt.

Since then, Park has continued to receive death threats, also targeting his wife and son.

The threats have not deterred Park Sang Hak from pursuing his radical propaganda campaign against Pyongyang, drawing the wrath of the cloistered North Korean cabal. Flyers, books and transistor radios with shortwave reception form part of Park's weapons. The activist packs them into specially prepared, cigar-shaped balloons - and flies them across the heavily-militarized border into North Korea. Nothing scares the Kim regime more than a free flow of information to its isolated people.

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Activist Park is convinced that his flyers save lives. 20 years ago, he himself came across one - sent as part of the South Korean military's psychological warfare campaign. A student of electrical engineering in Pyongyang at the time, Park learned for the first time about the notorious internment camps run by his country's leadership.

Read more: Tortured, beaten, starved: life in a North Korean gulag

He also became aware of the fact that two of his countrymen had fled successfully to South Korea - a prosperous country that guarantees individual freedoms and the rule of law. For Park, it was still an outrageous thought.

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A stroke of fate

Park himself had no reason to flee at that time. He came from a privileged family; his father was among the few people in the country who even owned imported Mercedes cars.

Shortly before receiving his doctorate, he was offered a coveted post at the Propaganda Department of the North Korean government. His mission was to control and monitor North Koreans' access to information. Park was then unaware that the skills he was learning as part of his job would benefit him in the future.

Park's father feared in 1999 that there was a conspiracy to kill them. So they decided to flee the country overnight. A severe famine shook North Korea at the time, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

If one had the right contacts, it was easier to organize travel permits, given the generally chaotic situation. Customs officials collected bribes and looked the other way, allowing the two to cross over into China without any problems. From there, they moved on to Seoul.

Read more: Why Trump won't 'totally destroy' North Korea

Park could have led a comfortable life there as an intellectual, but in 2003 a refugee from his hometown told him about the fate of Park's remaining relatives.

"My two uncles had been tortured and they died as a result; my fiancée was terribly mutilated; my cousin disappeared without a trace," said Park. It marked the start of his radical activism, to which he says he has devoted the rest of his life.

On the road

The reporters from AP covered over 2,150 kilometers (1,336 miles), in a country of barely 25,000 kilometers of roads, merely 724 of those paved. They came back with only their photos as evidence of the life in the northern part of the secluded country. In the picture: A woman walks along a road southeast of Pyongyang in North Korea's North Hwanghae province.

Cooking by the fire

A North Korean man sits by a cooking fire he built to roast potatoes and chicken in the town of Samjiyon, in Ryanggang province. Possibly more than any other populated place on earth, North Korea is terra incognita, but the AP team was granted access to see North Korea and travel through places that, they were told, no foreign journalist and few foreigners had been allowed to see before.

The revolution mountain

A boulder lies on a path near the peak of Mount Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. North Koreans venerate Mount Paektu for its natural beauty, but more importantly because it is considered the home of the North Korean revolution. They also consider the mountain sacred as the place of their ancestral origin.

Leaving the capital

Farmers walk in a rainstorm with their cattle near the town of Hyesan, North Korea in Ryanggang province. "To get out of Pyongyang, we weaved our way around buses, streetcars, the black sedans of party officials and fleets of colorful new taxis that have over the past few years become commonplace," says Eric Talmadge, one of the jourmalists who participated in the journey.

Outside of Pyongyang

Young North Korean schoolchildren help to fix pot holes in a rural road in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. The country's best road is the 200-kilometer stretch of highway connecting the capital to the east coast port city of Wonsan. Beyond Wonsan, potholes, cracks or sudden patches of dirt road make travel a bumpy experience.

Once productive - now eerily quiet

North Korean residents walk on along a river in the town of Kimchaek, in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. The once-productive cities along its east coast, like the coal mining town of Kilju and the nearby city of Kimchaek - built around a sprawling but now eerily quiet ironworks complex - have become a rust belt, gritty and relentlessly gray.

Well hidden poverty

The remains of lunch left on a restaurant table in the city of Wonsan, North Korea. The government "minders" accompanied the journalists throughout the entire trip. Like foreign tourists, the AP team only saw a bare trace of the deprivation residents experience. Most of the country's citizens cannot afford proper housing, let alone a visit to a restaurant.

It's the little things

The journalists' itineary was dictated by North Korea's terms. There would be no stopping to interview random people. "It's quite possible none of them had ever seen an American before," said AP's Eric Talmadge, "but our presence went unacknowledged. No glances were exchanged. No words were spoken." Here boys are playing soccer in the town of Hyesan, in the northern Ryanggang province.

Local food, local beer

North Korean men share a picnic lunch and North Korean-brewed and bottled Taedonggang beer along the road in North Korea's North Hwanghae province. This year, according to United Nations experts, the country could come closer to feeding itself than it has in decades. But hunger remains a serious problem, with a third of North Korean children stunted in growth due to poor nutrition.

Providing food is a constant struggle

A farmer carries a fully grown cabbage after harvesting it from the main crop which will be harvested early November, on the outskirts of Pyongyang. About four-fifths of North Korea's land is too rugged to farm. Providing enough food to feed the nation is a struggle for North Korea, which suffered a near cataclysmic famine in the 1990s.

No detour allowed

A man works on his car as others sit next to the Wonsan Sea in North Korea. For the most part, AP's reporters were not allowed to detour from their pre-approved route, which, to no one's surprise, did not include nuclear facilities or prison camps.

Never really free

A group of young North Koreans enjoys a picnic on the beach in Wonsan. "Even on the loneliest of lonely highways, we would never be without a 'minder,' whose job was to monitor and supervise our activities," Talmadge explains. "We were not to take photographs of any checkpoints or military installations."

Without words

North Korean people rest next to the railroad tracks in a town in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. "Though we would not get to know the people along the way, the country itself had a great deal to say. And it was opening up before us," Talmadge said upon his return. "We had been granted unprecedented access."

'Kim is behind the attack'

As the trial in Kim Jong Nam's murder case got underway in Malaysia on Monday, October 2, there is no doubt in Park's mind as to who the real culprit was.

"I am 100 percent sure Kim Jong Un was behind the attack." Kim Jong Nam's mere existence had been a threat to his half-brother, Park said. "Kim Jong Nam is the first-born child of Kim Jong Il and according to Korean tradition, he was entitled to the 'throne,' even if he never laid claim to it," the activist pointed out.

Many North Koreans do not even know that Kim Jong Un has siblings, he noted.

Sometimes Park wonders how his life would have turned out if he had never left North Korea. "Even if I would have had a comfortable life in Pyongyang, I do not think I would have been happy in North Korea. In Seoul, I have learned to appreciate the value of freedom."