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Seoul activists are developing ‘smart balloons’ to send messages deep into North Korea

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By Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) – In the balloon war between North Korea and South Korean activists, a Seoul-based group has honed its technical expertise to develop balloons that can deliver leaflets and electronic speakers hundreds of miles across the border.

These so-called ‘smart balloons’ are built using 3D printers and components purchased online and sometimes equipped with GPS tracking. They can cost up to $1,000 each.

Once or twice a month, from spring to autumn, when favorable winds blow north, the secretive group releases the balloons – usually under the cover of darkness. The aim is to drop payloads deeper into North Korea, including over the capital Pyongyang, now allowing for greater range. One balloon flew as far as China.

“Our smart balloons are expensive, but we believe they are a hundred times more powerful than balloons flown by other groups,” said a member of the group called “Joson’s Committee for Reform and Opening Up.” Joson is another word for North Korea.

The group, which has about thirty core members and is funded by members’ own finances and donations, has not previously disclosed its activities to the media.

Balloon tactics have been at the center of the frosty relationship between the two Koreas since late last month. North Korea, a rare operator of balloons, has sent more than 1,000 of them south in recent years, most laden with garbage and some with what appeared to be animal feces.

That has increased tensions between countries that are still technically at war after the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in an armistice agreement and not a peace treaty. South Korea resumed loudspeaker broadcasts targeting the North on Sunday for the first time since 2018.

How effective the balloons are is a matter of debate, with no independent verification of where they land or what the average North Korean might think of their contents.

A second member of the group said he was encouraged by Pyongyang’s anger over balloons from South Korea, saying it shows that activists’ balloons and their payloads are having an effect.

The group’s members declined to be identified, citing concerns about harassment by South Koreans critical of such activists, a possible crackdown by South Korean authorities or reprisals by North Korean agents.

THE LOADS

Filled with hydrogen, the group’s smart balloons can carry a payload of up to 7.5 kilograms.

In a small rented apartment in Seoul, the team uses 3D printers to build white plastic boxes and some connecting parts. Wires, circuit boards and timers purchased from Chinese and South Korean e-commerce websites are used to create devices that control the spread of the balloons’ contents.

Most balloons contain devices pre-programmed to deliver 1,500 leaflets, 25 at a time, taking into account the expected flight path, wind and other weather conditions.

This year, some balloons carry speakers attached to small parachutes that play pre-recorded messages critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

A typical shipment might consist of six loudspeakers and six other bundles, each containing a Bible and a shortwave radio, according to the group’s first member, who defected from the North in the 1990s and is responsible for its technical development .

The lantern-shaped speaker devices are composed of a waterproof box, lithium-ion batteries and an amplifier. When deployed, three small rainbow-colored parachutes on top of the speaker open, while a foam base helps absorb any landing shock.

They then play 15 minutes of North Korean songs and messages recorded with a North Korean accent and pause for 30 minutes before starting again. The batteries last 5 days.

“Get rid of the Workers’ Party, so Joson can survive. Kim Jong-un is an anti-unification traitor,” part of the recording reads.

Another important technical advance made in the last two years is the valves linked to the altimeter that automatically prevent the balloons from going too high, ensuring a more stable flight, although the balloons are still dependent on the weather and their flight paths cannot be determined. checked.

The group estimates that their balloons have a 50-60% success rate in going further than a few dozen miles north of the border. That’s better than old-fashioned balloons that often don’t go very far, can quickly go off course and can only drop one packet of leaflets.

PUSH BACK

A handful of groups in the South regularly send balloons to the North, activists estimate.

The South Korean government once sent its own pamphlets, but stopped doing so more than a decade ago. It imposed a ban in 2020 on national security grounds. But when a court overturned that ban last September, saying it violated the constitutional right to free speech, groups stepped up balloon flights from the South.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it respects the court’s decision. If necessary, it will take appropriate measures, she added, without elaborating.

North Korean officials have called South Korean leaflet activists “human scum” and demolished an inter-Korean liaison office in 2020 during a row over leaflets. In 2022, they claimed that these “alien things” could carry the coronavirus.

The flights are also controversial in South Korea, where some residents have clashed with activist groups, arguing that the balloons are confrontational and endanger them.

The smart balloon group said South Korean marines near the border had previously verbally warned them not to carry out launches. The military has said troops have no right to restrict balloon launches by private groups.

(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Josh Smith and Edwina Gibbs)

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