In a one-man fight against the ruling establishments of North and South Korea, a 53-year-old defector has outraged Kim Yo Jong, kid sister of ruler Kim Jong Un, and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in alike.
Park Sang-Hak, who fled North Korea 21 years ago with his family, has defied both of them by sending thousands of leaflets cascading over the North in defiance of a new law rammed through the South’s National Assembly banning this expression of free speech.
In the run-up to Moon’s first summit with President Joe Biden in the White House on May 21, South Korean police have refrained from arresting Park, but the police searched his office on Thursday minutes after he told The Daily Beast in a Zoom conversation that he was “determined to keep sending leaflets” regardless of the law and constant surveillance.
The police may have listened in on the interview with The Daily Beast—Park’s last phone contact with a journalist before they confiscated his mobile along with documents from his office in Seoul to which he defected in 2000 through China with his wife and son.
Park’s main message to the North Koreans, as propounded in 500,000 leaflets and 500 pamphlets dropped from balloons wafted over the North on April 28 and April 30: “Kim Jong Un is developing nuclear weapons while 20 million people are starving.”
That was enough to infuriate Kim Yo Jong, who sought to intimidate the South in a statement asking if South Korean authorities were “ready to take care of the consequences of evil conduct done by the rubbish-like mongrel dogs who took no scruple to slander us while faulting the ‘nuclear issue’ in the meanest way.”
“Clearly speaking,” she said in her statement, carried in English on May 2 by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, “[The South Koreans] will be forced to pay a dear price if they let this situation go on while making sort of excuses.”
Speaking to The Daily Beast, Park cited Kim Yo Jong’s fury as evidence that South Korean officials were lying when they claimed that most of the balloons bearing the leaflets had blown back to the South, missing intended targets. He said many had landed in the vicinity of Pyongyang’s central railroad station where they were easily picked up by ordinary people as well as North Korean soldiers. Along with the leaflets, 5,000 one-dollar bills were also dropped over the North to give people real money as opposed to near-worthless North Korean currency.
Park, who calls his organization “Fighters for a Free North Korea,” said in a Zoom conversation that police were constantly following his movements and watching both his office and residence to keep him from making good on plans to launch more leaflets—and also to protect him from assassination by North Korean agents.
Over the past two decades, he’s been responsible for more than 100 leaflet launches over the North. Other North Korean defectors have launched many more, but he’s the only one to have defied the new law banning leaflets as passed by Korea’s national assembly in December.
“The North Koreans have put out a directive,” said Park, talking through a long-time contact serving as an interpreter for the conversation. “They said, ‘Get rid of Park Sang-Hak.’”
Defiantly, he added , “[South Korean police] cannot arrest me”—at least not until after Biden’s summit with Moon.
Biden and his team have not commented on whether the topic of the anti-leaflet law will come up at the summit, but Park hoped Biden would ask about the legality of the legislation that he said represses free speech as guaranteed in the South’s constitution.
“I want President Biden to ask all those questions,” he said. “Why does Moon violate the Korean constitution, freedom of speech, freedom of information. That’s what President Biden should confront President Moon with.”
Park spoke out in terms that clearly identify with Korean right-wing forces, gathering strength while Moon’s own popularity sinks in response to corruption scandals and economic issues.
“Moon is working for Kim Jong Un,” he said, echoing widespread comments by Moon’s conservative critics.
He almost dared South Korean authorities to jail him, declaring: “If I am arrested, opposition party politicians and the mass media will not sit silently by. They will raise holy hell.” He believed one reason he remained free was the political pressure of the conservative Liberty Party, standing against the ruling Democratic Party in the National Assembly.
“I don’t think Moon will arrest me,” he said. “It will look vile and low if he arrests me after the summit.”
Park’s defiance of authorities contrasts with that of other defectors who have refrained from launching leaflets since enactment of the anti-leaflet law.
“As long as the North Korean people suffer, there will be no stopping,” he said. “We will keep sending leaflets.”
The police raid on his office, however, suggests that he may not be able to make good on that pledge even if he’s not arrested. Without a mobile phone, it’s not even certain he will be able to publicize his views anywhere.
“Moon claims he’s for human rights,” he told The Daily Beast. “He’s a puppet of the North Korean regime, the Kim dynasty. He is close to Kim and also to [Chinese president] Xi Jinping. ”
He said he saw no way for the Americans or South Koreans to get into dialog with the North after the Biden-Moon summit.
“Moon will beg Biden to have a summit with North Korea,” he said. “I don’t think it will happen.” In the meantime, he added, “Kim Jong Un has got what he wants, nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles. Moon will ask Biden to accept North Korea as a nuclear power.”