Dear Dr. Feffer,
Thank you for your editorial piece entitled The Balloon War, posted on the Hankyoreh website on November 3. Your care for North Korean farmers and young children, residents of the South Korean border areas, North-South cooperative efforts, and the reputation of the South Korean government is commendable and certainly echoed and shared by us without reservation.
As the Chief Executive Officer of Seoul USA, the organization you excoriate in your article for motives that you create and then inexplicably attribute back to us, I write with the assurance of your mutual good will extended back to us upon my clarification and correction of several points of information on which your concerns rightly rest.
Balloon launching into North Korea by private non-governmental groups in South Korea began more than 40 years ago as one of a wide array of communication strategies designed to provide North Korean citizens with access to information beyond state channels. Today, both the South Korean government and non-governmental groups like the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights carefully document and investigate allegations of human rights abuses inside North Korea. During the 40 year period of balloon launching by private groups, not a single report has arisen of a North Korean adult or child experiencing personal or family punishment as a result of inadvertent or innocent contact with materials dropped by balloon.
As the phenomenon of balloon launching is not new, neither is North Korea’s tactical response to it, nor is the response of its citizens. North Korean soldiers are mobilized to gather up materials that have dropped by balloon. North Korean citizens, including children, are regularly and frequently instructed how to respond to materials dropped by balloon. Given the comprehensiveness of human rights abuses now catalogued through the testimony of tens of thousands of North Korean refugees, the absence of even a single unverified anecdote of a farmer or young child being rounded up and sent away due to inadvertent contact with materials dropped by balloon is significant. Four decades of data would indicate that fears of innocent North Koreans being punished as a result of balloon launches are unfounded.
Seoul USA began launching Christian literature into North Korea twelve years ago, first in the form of flyers and now in the form of pocket-size North Korean dialect New Testament Bibles. From our very first launch on through our most recent one we have worked continuously with the South Korean government, local police departments, and private citizens in the areas we launch to select launch times, strategies, and locations that ensure the safety of residents, avoid unnecessary provocation, and verify delivery into North Korea via GPS technology that enables us to track each launch with precision. Far from “boasting” about our work, we launch primarily at night in order to avoid media attention, responding to media only on occasions like this one where we feel it important to correct misperceptions and inaccurate information. We are regularly commended by officials for our cooperation with them and our commitment to continual improvement of our technology and strategies to minimize risk and provocation.
The Bible that we launch is one published by the North Korean government’s own Korean Christian Federation. It is one of the religious books the North Korean government acknowledges publishing in its own recent report on human rights in North Korea, a report which contends that North Korean citizens may freely read and choose to believe the content of such publications. The book is available for printing in South Korea as part of the reciprocal publishing arrangement between North and South Korea regarding important cultural properties.
You quote a statement from our website indicating that we are “well aware” of the dangers of our balloon launch methodology and that we are “more interested in saving souls than saving lives.” Moreover, you contend that we perhaps believe that the deaths of those who receive our Bibles serves to spread our message. I am unclear why a scholar of your stature would make such incredible claims and attribute them to us without warrant or effort to fact check by contacting us prior to publication of your article.
By way of clarification, it is important to note the factual error of your assertion that the punishment for trafficking Christian literature is the same in North Korea as the punishment for possessing it. In actuality, trafficking Christian literature falls under the category of espionage and sedition in North Korean jurisprudence. Carefully documented analysis indicates that punishment for possession of Christian literature depends primarily on the circumstances of its acquisition, e.g., was it obtained through contact with a foreign missionary, or through some other means?
What makes Bibles launched by balloon safer than couriered Bibles is that neither the courier nor the recipient are inadvertently placed in danger. North Korean citizens are well aware of what Bibles are, since contrary to popular belief North Koreans are actually taught in school from their youth about Christian missionaries, Christian literature, and the punishments for contact with either. This means that North Koreans who choose to pick up and retain a Bible dropped by balloon do so well aware of the potential risk involved. Since they have obtained the Bible without contact with a foreigner, and since the Bible they receive is one originally created by their own government, their punishment would not be the same as receiving a foreign Bible via courier or contact with a missionary. Contrary to your assertion that we are actively seeking to make martyrs to serve our own ends, every effort is made to ensure that risk is minimized. This is not to contend that Bible possession is safe in North Korea—it is not—but this method ensures that every North Korean who chooses to possess one of the Bibles we send by balloon is fully aware of the risk they are engendering, and that risks are minimized as far as circumstances permit.
Further, given your extensive travels across Europe and knowledge of European history, you will no doubt be aware that, contrary to your assertion that we value souls more than lives, the dissemination of Christian literature and the propagation of Christian faith have arguably played a pivotal, complementary role in peaceful revolutions that saved not only souls but bodies and blood as well in some of the most politically intractable situations in the Cold War era on through the present day.
Seoul USA is composed of North Koreans, South Koreans, and Westerners who work continuously to gather and analyze triangulated ground-level, real-time data from North Korea and apply the best practices from affiliated groups around the world on how to responsibly enable North Koreans to experience the freedom of religion guaranteed to them by their country’s constitution. We have enjoyed and continue to enjoy good relations with South Korean governmental, military, and police agencies across the range of our work in South Korea, from balloon launching to radio broadcasting to education and training programs for North Koreans. So far are we from “visceral dislike” of North Korea and a desire to make South Korea “look like a hypocritical country” that I am simply at a loss for words to respond to your bold accusation. We have complied and continue to comply not only with all South Korean laws but with the advice and counsel of the South Korean agencies with whom we regularly interface.
Though we have completed our balloon launching for the year (meteorological conditions generally restrict successful launches to the period from May through October), we, in accordance with the decisions of the South Korean government to date, do not believe that a blanket curtailment of balloon launching should be regarded as a prerequisite for diplomatic engagement between North and South Korea. Balloon launching is neither a new nor intensified initative that presents novel challenges to the North Korean government. Even under the Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae Jung, balloon launching by private groups continued concurrently with diplomatic engagement.
We support the ongoing, free discussion that is always underway in South Korea regarding how best to promote and protect democracy and human rights amidst regular diplomatic interface with North Korea but do encourage all parties involved to seek to understand each other through charitable judgment and respectful personal interaction rather than alienating assertions and assumptions that stand to heighten tensions and erode opportunities for cooperation in the public sphere.
With warmest regards,
The Rev. Eric P. Foley
Chief Executive Officer
Seoul USA/Voice of the Martyrs-Korea