An Act of Subversion, Carried by Balloons
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
GANGHWA ISLAND, South Korea -- Lee Min Bok stared across a narrow inlet at the Korean shoreline, using his compass to gauge the gusting wind's direction. Nodding, the gaunt, soft-spoken missionary then said a prayer with his three assistants and began launching hundreds of helium balloons across the world's most heavily fortified border.
The balloons carried plastic bags containing pamphlets of Bible scripture and pairs of nylon stockings to entice wary North Koreans. Lee's aerial evangelism was part of a broader campaign by Christian groups in East Asia and beyond against North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his government.
"Christians have become the alpha and omega of the North Korean issue," said Douglas Shin, a California-based Korean American missionary, who was briefly detained by Mongolia in the 1990s for helping North Korean refugees cross the border to Mongolia from China.
"We have picked up this banner to help the North Korean people. Some people don't like using the word crusade, but that's exactly what this is -- a crusade to liberate North Korea."
Hoping to kindle opposition in the isolated communist state, missionaries are smuggling in Bibles, food, clothes, and transistor radios capable of receiving foreign transmissions over the border, mostly via China. The Chinese government does not condone smuggling across its 880-mile border with North Korea, but the size of the frontier makes most activity difficult to monitor.
Ongoing campaigns in South Korea to provide such material is considered seditious by the North, where possessing a Bible is punishable by death or imprisonment. The spread of Bible teachings directly challenges religious teachings in North Korea, where the country's late founder, Kim Il Sung, and his son, Kim Jong Il, are referred to as gods.
"The most dangerous thing for Kim Jong Il is the truth. That's the message I'm sending home," said Lee, 65, a chemist who defected from North Korea in 2000. Lee was detained and questioned for his activities for six hours late last month by South Korean police. But he and his Seoul-based team were back with their balloons on another part of the border three days later.
"We will pave the road to freedom in North Korea with our work," he said.
Missionaries have also become the primary lifeline for people fleeing North Korea.
One woman said she was able to stage a risky operation with the help of missionaries three months ago to get her 20-year-old son out of North Korea, and said she paid $3,000 in bribes to North Korean and Chinese officials.
The woman, Ms. Kim, 50, who asked that her given name be withheld to protect her extended family back home, fled North Korea with her daughter three years ago.
"Sometimes I just have to go over and touch his face -- I can't believe he's here," Kim said as she looked at her son in the office of the Seoul-based Peace Unification Christian Church.