Park Sang-hak, North Korean defector and pro-democracy advocate living in South Korea

Border Balloons

The border between North and South Korea is a tense, sometimes violent place, where the two countries exchange gun and artillery fire, where the lone North Korean soldier may weave his way through the minefields to escape the North, or where South Korean soldiers sometimes turn on their comrades. The conflict extends into South Korean civil society, where various groups battle over ideology and the South’s approach to their northern neighbors.

Last Saturday, October 24, that battle was on full display, as an anti-North Korean civic group attempted to launch balloons carrying pro-democracy pamphlets, DVDs, and other items towards North Korea. The tactic is used often by such groups, and they consider it an important way to provide information about the outside world to North Koreans, and to undermine the Kim regime. The balloon launches also keep the conflict in the public spotlight, and are, perhaps, meant as much for domestic and international media consumption as they are for North Korean farmers.

Many in South Korea, however, oppose the practice. Some residents of the border area fear the balloon launches may provoke a military response from the North–an attack that would endanger their lives and livelihoods. Pro-unification activists oppose the launches on the grounds that they hurt inter-Korean relations and make rapprochement more difficult.

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Police surround a bus carrying anti-North activists and attempt to keep them apart from a group opposed to the balloon launches.

Representatives of those constituencies met the anti-North activists on Saturday in Imjingak, a park on the South Korean side of the Imjin River, in the city of Paju, just across the border from North Korea. The advocates of democracy in North Korea had come to launch balloons, while residents and pro-unification activists arrived to block the launch.

I traveled to Paju with my friend and fellow photographer Lee Jae-won to photograph the balloon launch. The residents and pro-unification folks succeeded in stopping the launch for most of the day, by blocking the bus carrying anti-North activists, attacking the truck carrying supplies, and destroying the balloons and and other materials. The anti-North group, which included North Korean defector Park Sang-hak (pictured at the top of this post), brought in more materials and tried to launch from another site, but were stopped again. Meanwhile, a smaller group of them were able to break off and release some balloons from another area later in the evening after dark.

The images below document the attempted ballon launch in Paju.

 

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Anti-North activist Choi Woo-won holds one of the leaflets that were to be launched in the balloons while speaking to a crowd of police, supporters, and protesters at Imjingak in Paju, South Korea.

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After Sewol tragedy, mourning turns to anger

Almost three weeks after the sinking of the Sewol ferry, a deep sense of sadness persists across the country. Close to 300 people died, most of them students from Danwon High School, and the loss of so many young lives is stirring popular anger against the Park administration as it struggles to respond.

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Signs and flowers were left at the gate to Danwon High School in Ansan, South Korea.

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Danwon High School.

I was in Ansan just days after the accident, and I photographed a vigil held there as people held out hope for survivors. After the initial rescue, no survivors were found, and dive teams continue to pull bodies from the sunken ship. Close to 300 people died, most of them teenagers from Ansan.

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People hold candles at a vigil in Ansan, South Korea.

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People hold candles at a vigil in Ansan, South Korea.

The Sewol tragedy is truly that. In the minutes after the ship began to list, the captain and crew refused to order an evacuation, and instead instructed passengers to remain where they were. Most of the students who died were on lower decks, and were trapped as the water began to pour in. The captain and most of the crew, meanwhile, were some of the first to be evacuated as rescue boats arrived.

Almost immediately, even before divers started pulling bodies from the ship, allegations of negligence, ineptitude, and insincerity on the part of the government began to arise. Now, a popular tide of anger is growing against president Park Geun-hye and her administration as people wonder if pro-business policies led to lax oversight, which in turn led to the disaster.

There were several demonstrations yesterday in Seoul, and in the evening around 5,000 people converged at Cheongye Plaza near the Blue House for a candle light vigil and protest.

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Nuns pray during a demonstration at Cheongye Plaza in Seoul, South Korea.

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Students post protest signs at Cheongye Plaza in Seoul, South Korea.

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People hold anti-government signs at a demonstration in Seoul, South Korea.

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People react as they watch video footage of the Sewol ferry sinking recovered from victims’ phones, at Cheongye Plaza, Seoul, South Korea.

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A mother and daughter hold candles at a demonstration and vigil in Seoul, South Korea.

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A woman cries during a demonstration and vigil in Seoul, South Korea.

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People hold candles during a vigil at Cheongye Plaza.

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A high school student weeps while holding a banner at a demonstration in Seoul.

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A protestor holds a sign protesting the Park administration in Seoul.

A protestor holds a sign protesting the Park administration in Seoul.

A protestor speaks during a demonstration in Seoul.

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A woman holds a sign protesting president Park Geun-hye at a demonstration in Seoul.

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People hold signs calling on president Park Geun-hye to take responsibility for the Sewol disaster at a demonstration in Seoul.

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Students hold signs reading “Save the Children” at a demonstration in Seoul.

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People hold flowers and signs reading, “Stay where you are,” in reference to orders given by the ship’s crew during the sinking of the Sewol.

All photographs in this post by Ben Weller, all rights reserved. To license images from this post please fill out the contact form.