REPORTING FROM THE KOREAN DMZ –- The oblong helium balloon rose into an ink-colored sky Saturday, released by a dozen hands just south of one of the world’s most fortified borders, its precious cargo bound for North Korea.
Yet unlike countless balloon launches that shower the north with pamphlets and political screeds criticizing Kim Jong-il’s secretive regime, this one carried a different kind of payload: socks.
In all, hundreds of pairs of foot coverings were lifted heavenward by 10 balloons: little pink baby footies and large black and blue ones for growing children and adults -– all headed for impoverished residents facing another winter.
The socks also carried a message: Hang on for dear life.
“Brothers and sisters: We haven’t forgotten about your suffering,” read a plastic pouch attached to each pair. “Until unification, please stay alive. People around the world love you.”
The humanitarian launch was the brainchild of Lee Ju-sung, a 46-year-old North Korean defector who years ago was inspired by a similar balloon drop while enduring life under the thumb of Kim’s oppressive rule.
Trekking through the woods in 2005, he remembers finding a leaflet that inspired him to flee North Korea forever.
Now Kim wants to use the same method to reach out to other North Koreans, but his project has a simple but elegant twist: The gift from a free country was not ideology, but warmth for the winter.
“Warm socks are a critical necessity in North Korea during the winter months -– almost as much as food,” said Kim, dressed in blue jeans and an off-yellow Head-brand parka. “One pair of socks cost the equivalent of $9 in North Korea. That same amount could buy 20 pounds of corn, enough to feed a person for an entire month.”
Like many North Korean defectors still worried about family and friends back home, Lee is frustrated by the international effort to get food into the north, a program that has been hindered by politics and plundering by officials inside the north.
Critics say the regime is exaggerating the need for donated food, which in the past has been siphoned off by greedy government officials. But in recent months, North Korea’s claims of a starving populace have been backed up by several prominent international aid groups that have visited the impoverished nation.
This month, a U.N. food aid coordinator returned from a visit to the north reporting that the need for foodstuffs was dire. Still, for years now, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s conservative administration has reduced aid as political leverage.
In the middle stand people like Lee, a father of three who once worked the black market importing corn, fish and ginseng into North Korea from China. One fall day six years ago, Lee spotted a leaflet ballooned in from the south. He picked it up and nearly wept.
The words described a world he scarcely knew existed.
“I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” he recalled. “The government told us that the south was desperately poor, but here was evidence of success –- thriving automobile and semi-conductor industries. That pamphlet changed my life.”
Lee defected to China that same year, eventually settling with his family in Seoul, where he works odd jobs while studying computer science. He also started an NGO called North Korea Peace, which since 2007 has used worldwide donations to send pamphlets to the north.
This fall, Lee began sending socks instead. “In South Korea, you can buy a pair of socks for the same price as a pack of gum, about 35 cents,” he said. “That’s the price to maybe help save a life.”
So far, he’s sent 50,000 pairs of socks and 850,000 messages to the north. His goal is to send 1,000 new pairs of socks each month.
His mission takes equal doses of chutzpah, luck and knowhow. The day before Saturday’s launch, Lee went to a vegetable market to collect 10 sturdy cardboard boxes used to ship persimmons.
Through the Internet, he and his volunteers attracted a curious crowd of a dozen people who paid $27 to ride a bus from Seoul to the launch site in a parking lot a half-mile south of the DMZ.
On a gray morning that threatened rain, Lee demonstrated how he pulls off his weekly balloon trick. He filled the elongated balloons with helium, attaching them to a box of about 100 socks. A timer on each package is set to open the box three hours later and disperse the contents like precipitation from the skies.
Suddenly, a man from Somalia stepped forward. “My people back home are suffering -– I know how it is,” said 31-year-old Noah Roble. “I admire what you’re doing. It gives me hope that one person can do so much good, or at least try.”
Then Lee was ready. He released a test balloon that shot skyward like a rocket. “Let’s just hope the wind is blowing north today,” said volunteer Cecelia Park.
There would be more balloons, with only one spiraling back down to the ground, thanks to a tiny hole in the plastic. But the day’s success rested on that first launch.
For a breathless moment, the eyes of a stubborn North Korean defector and this flock watched the balloon toss in the conflicting currents, as though not sure which way to go.
Then, to a collective sigh of relief, the little dirigible slowly righted itself, spun around and headed northward.
Photo: North Korean defector Lee Ju-sung directs the launch of 10 helium balloons carrying boxes of socks Saturday just south of the Korean DMZ. Credit: Matt Douma / For The Times
-- John M. Glionna