Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Defector reaches out to North Korea by balloon

Lee Min-bok sends fliers drifting across the border in hopes of enlightening his former countrymen. Despite an anti-propaganda pact, he's not alone.

Lee Min-bok is equal parts meteorologist, tinkering inventor and political dissident, a man obsessed by a singular goal: to spirit messages to those left behind in his native North Korea -- 23 million countrymen living under the ironfisted rule of Kim Jong Il.

To reach the isolated society devoid of outside newspapers, radio and television, the 52-year-old defector uses a simple yet elegant method to fly under the radar of North Korean intelligence watchdogs: He sends millions of leaflets northward by way of his towering helium balloons.

In this high-tech age, the balloons have struck a nerve with Pyongyang and landed Lee and other launchers center-stage in the Korean peninsula's high-wire political standoff.

Last week, North Korea cited Seoul's inability to control the launches -- by defectors and a handful of civic groups -- as a major reason to again close its border, banning tourists and reducing trade.

Analysts say the leaflets are written in simple language by former North Koreans who intimately know the North's culture and which political buttons to press.