Skip to main content

Calls for democracy fly into North Korea

By Paula Hancocks, CNN
Click to play
Calls for democracy fly into North Korea
  • South Korean activists send balloons into North carrying leaflets and DVDs
  • Current messages inform about anti-dictatorial revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt
  • Experts agree changes will be slow and revolution in N. Korea is unrealistic

Seoul (CNN) -- It is impossible to know how many North Koreans know anything about the pro-democracy unrest sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa. A safe assumption has to be ... not many.

But South Korean activists and some politicians are trying to change that, sending helium balloons skywards across the border carrying hundreds of thousands of leaflets and DVDs.

The content of the propaganda has changed. Once solely focused on piercing the cult status of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il, it is now geared towards educating people about the anti-dictatorial revolutions that toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.

One DVD sent north on February 16 -- to commemorate Kim Jong-Il's birthday -- shows footage of the Egypt uprising with text on the screen that reads: "The lesson to be learnt from the anti-dictator, pro-democracy struggles in Tunisia and Egypt is that freedom and democracy can only be won through physical sacrifice." The DVD was made before the unrest started in Libya.

The power of the people is now being shown to a population that has no power and little if any knowledge of the outside world. One defector tells CNN he read these propaganda leaflets before he left North Korea and DVDs showing Seoul to be a modern and affluent city helped him make the decision to escape.

The lesson to be learnt from the anti-dictator, pro-democracy struggles in Tunisia and Egypt is that freedom and democracy can only be won through physical sacrifice.
--Message on DVD sent north by balloon

And even though only a small population of the country -- mainly those closer to the border -- will ever see the propaganda, he believes it is still effective. "You'd be lucky if 10% ever pick up a leaflet, but given the speed that word travels, I think people who hear about it could probably reach up to 50%. There are no channels of communication in the North and everything is done by word of mouth."

Now working in Seoul for North Korea Reform Radio, he says that knowing about dictators being toppled could help change the North Korean mindset.

But defectors and commentators alike agree any changes will be painfully slow and a revolution in today's tightly controlled North Korea is just unrealistic. Professor Andrei Lankov of Seoul's Kookmin University tells CNN: "In Egypt, it was possible to access the internet and the internet doesn't exist in North Korea.

"In Egypt, it was possible to talk to foreigners and no North Korean would dare to talk to a foreigner unless he or she has special authorization to do so. In Egypt, you could even join an opposition party and probably survive the experience, no opposition party can possibly exist in North Korea." Lankov adds that the people are disunited, isolated and terrified of their leader.

South Korean media claims that the country's military has been launching balloons to the North recently with updated DVDs including Libya's unrest. The defense ministry would not comment but the South Korean government did re-launch its policy of psychological warfare with propaganda broadcasts last May after an investigation showed North Korea was responsible for sinking a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. The North has denied any involvement.

As for North Korea's response to the recent batch of leaflets and DVDs, Pyongyang has threatened to fire directly on anyone in South Korea who tries to launch another balloon.