Airborne leaflets torment North Korea; jeopardize talks with South

Wed Oct 15, 2014 6:54am EDT
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By Ju-min Park

POCHEON South Korea (Reuters) - Lee Min-bok stuffs plastic satchels with thousands of vinyl flyers criticizing North Korea, instant noodle packs, and sometimes $1 notes and USB sticks with South Korean soap operas.

From his ramshackle container-box home near the world's most heavily militarized border, the North Korean defector scans satellite weather photos on his laptop for the best place and time to launch the cylindrical 7-metre-tall hot-air balloons that will carry the satchels across the frontier.

He hopes thousands of his former countrymen who will be out in the fields for the autumn harvest will read the leaflets.

It's only propaganda, but the leaflets infuriate Pyongyang and threaten to scuttle negotiations between the two Koreas after the North's biggest peace overture in several years.

Three of its senior officials made a surprise visit to the South on Oct. 4, raising hopes for a breakthrough in the tense ties between the two sides. A follow-up round of talks is due to start between late October and early November.

But last week, North Korea's state KCNA news agency said the process was being jeopardized by leaflet-drops, which it called "a premeditated and deliberate politically-motivated provocation perpetrated under the backstage wire-pulling of the U.S. and the South Korean authorities".

On Friday, North Korea fired machine guns at one of Lee's balloons that flew in low across the border because it was short of hydrogen. Pyongyang has often threatened to respond to the leaflets with force, but Friday was the first time it had done so. Some bullets from the North landed in the South, prompting retaliatory machine gun fire. No one was hurt.

Lee, 57, who has been launching about 50 million leaflets a year for a decade, doesn't put much stock in the talks. "My balloons are the way to achieve peace and unification and tell North Koreans the truth - not to hate the United States and South Korea," he said.   Continued...

North Korean defector Lee Min-bok poses for photographs during an interview with Reuters at his home in Pocheon, about 15 km (9 miles) south of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, October 15, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji