For North Koreans, balloons of hope
There was a light rain coming down as my wife, our two young boys and I emerged from the Itaewon station elevator on an otherwise ordinary morning. Our 3-year-old, Justin, was in his usual spot, straddling the top of the stroller, while little Joel kept to himself, and his snacks, strapped safely inside.
We stood for a moment in front of the Hamilton Hotel in a bit of a daze, knowing that we were running late for the bus pickup to the Demilitarized Zone separating the on-again off-again warring South and North Korea. I sent a hurried text to Jane, one of the event’s organizers, not to leave without their volunteer photographer.
I had decided on a whim that week that I was going to cover a balloon launch hosted by North Korea Peace, an organization that sends socks to North Korea via balloons every month.
My wife and I had talked from time to time about volunteering together as a family. We wanted to instill a sense of community and giving back in our sons early on, so when the opportunity to tag along to this sock launch presented itself, we decided to make a family trip out of it. My mother is from Seoul, and my father is from Maine; naturally, I’ve always felt like a child of two worlds. I thought perhaps that doing some pro bono work for an organization trying to help the people of North Korea would be a great place in which to put our efforts.
Images of North Korea have been emblazoned on my mind for years now. I saw a documentary by a few Russian filmmakers when I was fresh out of high school over a decade ago. I remember seeing haunting images of the streets of Pyongyang as these fellows were escorted from statue to statue, permitted to shoot only certain things. They arrived at a lush hotel, but were forced to take the 10 or 12 flights of stairs to their room as the elevator was out of service.
They took out their camera equipment and steadied a shot from their window on a uniformed woman on the street. She was standing stoically in a large intersection directing traffic that wasn’t there. She motioned harshly, efficiently, the kind of movement that comes with intensive military training. That image from over 10 years ago is what made me decide to take up documentary photography.
So there we were, blinking into the morning mist, hoping that we hadn’t missed the pickup. Scanning the street, we found the bus up the block, and we were soon on our way towards the border.
We were greeted by about 20 smiling volunteers — many of them expats. En route, we were shown a short documentary on North Korea; my thoughts went back to that documentary from 10 years ago. This time, there were no traffic officers, no ghostly hotels.
There were, however, images of young boys and girls who looked like they might have been 6 or 7 years old. We learned that they were actually 10, 11, 12 years old, well below average height and weight as compared to South Korean children of the same age. Endemic poverty and malnutrition during their early years caused them to look much younger than they actually were. As a father of two, it made quite an impression on me. I looked over at my two boys across the aisle, busily climbing over my wife, and felt a quiet gratitude come over me.
We pulled into a nondescript parking lot not far from the DMZ. Lee Ju-seong, a North Korean defector and the founder of North Korea Peace, led us off the bus to a staging area by a truck filled with hydrogen tanks for the balloons.
The volunteers gathered by the truck and Mr. Lee started us off by recounting some stories about what it was like to live in North Korea. He recalled seeing flyers falling from the sky on a cold winter day several years ago. He picked one up and was confronted by words of love and hope from their neighbors to the south. It went against everything he had been led to believe.
Once the possibility of something better took hold in his mind, he knew that he needed to escape to the South for the sake of his family.
He then introduced us to his wife and youngest child, a marvel of a little boy in between our boys’ ages. Mr. Lee continued as the three boys began chasing each other in the empty parking lot while the volunteers listened intently.
He informed us that in North Korea, a pair of socks is worth the equivalent of 10,000 won, which in turn is worth about 10 kilos of corn, enough to feed a person for a month. It’s hard to fathom that socks — something so ordinary, something so easily taken for granted — could be used as currency. Of course they can also be used for their intended purpose against the bitter cold. But he insisted that we were not just sending socks. We were sending hope. “A pair of socks can transform a life,” he stated plainly. This was no spiel. It was his truth, his gospel, his raison d’être. Mr. Lee showed us his technique for packaging and sending the socks. He had spent the night before the launch at his home with volunteers packing boxes with hundreds of socks and pamphlets. He tied a lanyard around the box, which he would then attach to a single, enormous balloon with a small plastic timer, set to release the contents of the box after a three-hour flight.
Volunteers came on deck as we filled the large, clear plastic balloons with hydrogen — we were informed that hydrogen is much more cost-effective than helium. He led a hose from a tank of hydrogen to the mouth of the balloon as volunteers unfurled the length of plastic, taking care not to drop or tear the thin material.
It took about eight to ten volunteers to help fill each balloon, holding the length horizontally as it slowly filled with gas.
After about 10 minutes, each balloon would stand about 30 feet high, anxiously reaching toward the heavens. Mr. Lee attached each balloon to a box of socks with a timer. We sent up the first two balloons, which went up with surprising velocity, as if they were impelled upward by more than just hydrogen. They were quickly out of sight.
We went about filling the next three balloons, but perhaps a bit over-zealously — two of these balloons found their way back down prematurely several hundred yards away. By then, we were told the weather was no longer in our favor, and that it would be wise to pack up and save the socks and balloons for the next launch. All told, we had sent roughly 600 of the intended 1,000 socks that North Korea Peace aims to send each month. Six hundred socks; 6,000 kilos of corn.
We made our way back to Itaewon feeling content, but awfully hungry for lunch. We ate samgyupsal together with Mr. Lee, who happily and humbly continued to share his many anecdotes. When he had first started North Korea Peace he required the financial support of various religious groups in America. He had his hands tied, however, since these groups could dictate the messages to include in the sock shipments; they were providing the funding, after all. Now that his organization has gotten some traction, he has full control over the content of the flyers he sends. They are less about religion and more about hope.
He vividly recalled a two-month period of relative freedom in the autumn of 1998. Various international sanctions had vastly limited food aid to North Korea for several months.
Food rations, he says, had been the lifeblood of the North Korean regime; the misappropriation of international aid within North Korea has been well documented. He posited that since there had been no food aid to distribute, the military state held little sway over government officials. Many officials left their posts, he claims, to be with their families. Had the international food sanctions continued just one more month, he assured us that the regime as we know it would have completely collapsed.
The sanctions were overturned, however, and South Korea was once again bending over backwards to appease its enemy. Kim Jong-il and his government had its lifeblood once again.
He let out a heavy sigh and paused a moment before continuing. He likened the North Korean regime to a sand castle — “You keep pouring water over it, it will eventually collapse.”
“Of course there will be reunification,” he answered without hesitation when asked. “Like we saw in Libya, something will happen from within North Korea, coupled with outside support. Like what we did today,” he said, referring to the sock launch.
As we said our goodbyes and made preparations to leave, I noticed that it had been about three hours since we had sent the balloons and their precious cargo. I imagined the timers releasing and the socks and flyers falling toward North Korean soil. I smiled to myself, wanting to believe that the socks would soon be in the hands of those who most needed them, as we packed our precious cargo into our stroller and made our way home.
For more information on North Korea Peace and how you can help the starving people of North Korea, go to www.northkoreapeace.org.