A day after North Korea launched a Taepondong-2 ballistic missile in direct defiance of international warnings against such a move, South Korean activists launched back with a different weapon: balloons. Six human-rights activists just south of North Korea's heavily fortified border released nine giant balloons carrying 90,000 fliers denouncing the Communist regime and its leader, Kim Jong-II.
The messages for North Koreans finding the fliers in the shuttered nation included: "Down with dictator Kim Jong-II" and "Missile [development] while letting people starve is nonsense." Park Sang-Hak, organizer of the project and leader of a group of North Korean defectors, said North Korea used the missile tests to divert attention away from the grim humanitarian conditions for its 23 million citizens.
United Nations officials estimate that more than 9 million North Koreans are in serious need of food aid, and they say that many North Korean children remain malnourished. (As many as 2 million people died during the 1990s after economic collapse and drought led to a severe famine.)
Despite the dire need, North Korean officials told the United States last month that it would no longer accept food aid from America. The government also demanded that five U.S. aid groups organizing food distribution leave two months before their scheduled departures in May.
Food shortages aren't the only problem: A report by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea says 200,000 political prisoners are languishing in North Korean gulags and labor camps under deplorable conditions. The government tolerates no political dissent from its citizens and allows little to no contact with the outside world.
That makes tactics like the balloon launch one of the only ways to reach large numbers of North Koreans with outside information. The government has threatened to punish citizens who pick up the information, and North Korean officials closed the border with South Korea last December, apparently angered over similar balloon drops.
North Korea's April 5 ballistic missile launch angered the international community and left the UN Security Council struggling to formulate a response. North Korea officials maintain they launched the missile to place a satellite in orbit, but President Barack Obama said the launch defied a UN resolution forbidding the nation to develop ballistic missile capabilities.
The president called on the UN to do something, an action former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton called "hand-wringing." Bolton said if international action leads to re-opening talks with the rogue state, the Pyongyang-based government will be pleased: "Those talks are exactly where North Korea wants to be. From them ever greater material and political benefits will flow to Pyongyang, in exchange for ever more hollow promises to dismantle its nuclear program."
In the meantime, activists in Washington, D.C., hope to underscore the suffering of North Koreans during North Korean Freedom Week. The event during the last week of April, sponsored by human-rights and Christian organizations, and will include prayer services, Capitol Hill rallies, and a protest outside the Chinese embassy to decry the often violent treatment of North Koreans who escape to China for refuge.
U.S. Department of State officials will also be following the plight of two American journalists detained in North Korea in mid-March: Laura Ling and Euna Lee from the San Francisco-based Current TV were reporting on North Koreans fleeing to China when the North Korean military arrested the pair on the border. The state-run news media said the journalists would face trial on charges of "hostile acts" against the Communist country. A conviction could carry a sentence of 5-10 years in a labor camp.