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.
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.