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.
When he finds the right wind current, he will release the balloons carrying the satchels, which can weigh as much as 8 kg (17.6 lb) and carry 100,000 hand-sized leaflets each and float 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) high. If all goes to plan, a timer will drop the payload on the other side of the border, preferably on farms where students and soldiers are helping to bring in the harvest.
The message they carry singles out Kim Jong Un, the 31-year-old third-generation dictator of one of the world’s poorest and most isolated countries.
“While one meal is precious, the immature 30-something man who says to swim, horse-ride, go skiing, has become the Marshal overnight. Everyone below him is a slave,” Lee’s flyer says.
South Korean authorities have urged activists to refrain from launching leaflets on safety grounds, but say they have no legal grounds to stop them. Police have rented the house next door to keep an eye on Lee, and one said they were protecting him from potential threats from North Korea.
Lee said police stopped him from launching balloons on Saturday, a day after the exchange of gunfire.
North Korea’s semi-official Uriminzokkiri website calls Lee “less than a beast” and “human garbage”, and has dubbed him the godfather of leaflets.
High-ranking military officials from North and South met on Wednesday to discuss the border gunfire exchange and a separate recent exchange at sea, but they did not resolve their differences, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said. The North again called for a stop to the leaflets.
Lee’s loyalty to the North Korean dictatorship began to turn in the 1990s during a horrific famine that is believed to have killed as many as a million North Koreans.
Then an agricultural scientist in the North, Lee said he sent numerous letters to the regime, claiming that individual cultivation could boost rice production. His letters were ignored, he said. Then, he happened to pick up a leaflet that appeared to be flown from the South, saying the 1950-53 Korean War had started with a North Korean invasion. The North blames the U.S.-backed South for starting the war.
In 1995, Lee defected to South Korea via China and Russia.
A Christian missionary, Lee receives sponsorship from individuals and churches. He says he receives up to 200 million won ($188,146) a year in donations to fund his effort. His wife and two small children accompany him as they drive around searching for the best launch conditions.
“North Korean threats are empty. They don’t know where I am doing it, and balloons fly under radar,” Lee said.
Editing by Tony Munroe, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Ian Geoghegan