I Flew Balloons to North Korea




A sea of clear plastic tubes flies across the DMZ, each one carrying a bag of rice to hungry North Koreans, and with it a measure of hope for a better world.

It was nothing like what I expected in being told that we would be sending balloons to North Korea. I often heard of these balloon launches in the media – about angry-looking men dressed in military camouflage, apparently North Korean defectors, packing inflatable plastic tubes with helium, money, DVDs, and leaflets criticising the Kim regime and praising the South. It left me ambivalent to say the least about the productiveness of this endeavour.

The balloon launches are back in the news again, now that the Asian Games have begun in Incheon and some are back at the frontline, armed with pumps and trucks and leaflets. Last weekend, one such group, the Fighters for Free North Korea, sent 200,0000 anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border despite warnings from even conservative lawmakers to refrain from such activities.

The North Korean government is not amused, promising vengeance. It has also told South Korea to dream on about any hope of dialogue. The recent launch also has stirred up a debate in South Korea for and against the event, with many South Korean netizens expressing anger towards North Koreans for causing trouble and telling them to “stay quiet or go back home”.

Let me tell you that not all balloon launches are the same. I recently attended one and it was as far-removed as it could be from militant anti-North Korean buffoonery of media portrayal. I was invited by an acquaintance who was going to one through his church. I was reassured, “It won’t be like them. With all things there are two sides, and this is the one most of the press do not want you to see”. So I accepted the invitation.

We waited several days for the optimal weather conditions, and the day finally came. The weather forecasts predicted winds blowing north for several hours in the evening. Rain might ensue. We arrived at the Seoul-based church early afternoon. I was not expecting such an intricately organised operation in a place of worship: It was filled with complex equipments, rubber gas pipes, stacks of rice, manual timers, maps charting the wind direction, and gigantic plastic bags which would presumably become balloons when filled with helium.

There was little for me to do. The church goers had already divided the rice into small 500 gram packets, approximately six fitting into each “load”.

It was time to leave for the border. I was surprised at the composition of the group. It was made up of the young and the old, men and women, some cheerful students, and even a couple of foreigners. During the drive, I asked a person how “we” were any different from the angry groups so often blocked by the police. The reply: “We do not send any message. No politics, no criticism, no church label. Just food”. It is tragic that we must resort to sending balloons across the border containing foodstuffs in order to feed starving North Koreans. Despite geographical proximity between the two sides, separated by a mere 4 kilometre-wide strip, the blockade of humanitarian aid under the sanctions imposed against North Korea has only gotten worse in recent years.

I asked if we had permission. “Of course, the police are fully aware and will be present to supervise”. While the North gets particularly agitated by the political messages they receive, they have never responded, I am told, to the food that drops in their fields. For that, the police have no objection.

We arrived at a small roadside restaurant to fill our stomachs. The atmosphere was bubbling, energetic. Everyone seemed excited. Night fell and the wind started blustering. It was time to leave immediately.

The police greeted us in a designated empty parking lot. A truck with dozens of helium cylinders was on standby. The vans and cars that transported us formed a circle of spotlights in pitch darkness. We were divided into teams of three or four, and given a bunch of balloons, rice loads, and timers. The timers had been pre-set to open their locks at different times: one hour, two hours, three hours, in the hope of even dispersal across the northern territory.

And the operation began. In sequence, each group released a balloon attached to a bag containing 3 kilos of rice. A downpour of rain came, but we were all in high spirits. The deafening screech of the gas filling these condom-shaped balloons, the thrill of letting them go, the secret prayer they will reach a person, the thought of someone discovering a bag of rice on his or her doorstep, and the hope they will wonder for a minute whether they are being thought of by the outside world… The experience was overwhelming yet thrilling.

How much did the day cost? Ten million South Korean Won, or 10,000 USD. I was initially disturbed by the huge amount of money spent on sending some sacks of rice that will probably fall out of the sky in the demilitarised zone before even entering North Korea. I also wondered how the church funded such an expensive operation. One confided: “Churches around the country outsource their ‘corporate social responsibility’ by funding this project from the comfort of their house of worship”. That explains why we were filmed all night: to provide evidence and reassurance to the comfortable churchgoers of their good deed while others get their hands dirty. But what was it that possessed these souls who were with me, some not even Christian, to dedicate technical expertise and days of free labour? I asked the team leader, a young North Korean defector. He said, “It is the hope that even just one bag of rice will reach someone”.

10,000 USD for a bag of rice. So dear is the cost of life. And it is, in my mind, worth every penny.


Raphael is a freelance journalist and fixer. He has an MA in Korean Studies from Korea University, and worked at Edelman Korea for three years representing some of South Korea's biggest conglomerates.