South Korean police halt 'The Interview' balloon drop

South Korean police halt 'The Interview' balloon drop
This undated picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on April 8 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, touring a plant in Pyongyang, the capital. (Korean Central News Agency)

Police in South Korea blocked activists from sending DVDs of "The Interview" to North Korea, the latest phase in the continuing saga over the Sony Pictures comedy that depicts the assassination of the North's leader.

Local news media reported Thursday that activist Park Sang-hak and members of his group, Fighters for a Free North Korea, had been prevented from launching balloons over the border that separates the Koreas.


South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that the activists had been looking to launch balloons containing 300,000 leaflets and 100,000 copies of "The Interview" on DVDs and USB sticks.

Until now, South Korean authorities had largely stayed out of the contentious debate in their country over the effort. The administration of President Park Geun-hye has argued that the launches are a private exercise of freedom of speech.

Many on the political left here maintain the launches should be prohibited, as the leaflets contain harshly worded criticism of the North's leadership under Kim Jong Un that antagonize Pyongyang and raise the possibility of inter-Korean conflict.

Weeks ago, Park Sang-hak had pledged to heed these concerns and indefinitely delay any launches of the DVDs. But he said at the time that the moratorium was contingent on North Korea apologizing for the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship near the North, which cost the lives of 46 sailors.

A South Korean investigation determined that a North Korean torpedo sank the vessel, but Pyongyang has resolutely denied it was involved.

On Thursday, local news media carried photos of the activist group standing behind a banner that described the North's government as the "culprit" in the Cheonan sinking. The group pledged to "take down the hereditary dictatorship," a reference to Kim's rule, which he inherited from his father and grandfather.

The police who got in the way of the launches may have been acting out of concern for residents of Paju, the small city where such launches take place. Locals have asked the authorities to step in because they worry for their safety whenever the balloons are released.

In October, North Korea used machine guns to try to shoot down some of the balloons. No injuries were reported, though shell casings were found on the South Korean side of the border.

Park Sang-hak is no stranger to criticism from both sides of the demilitarized zone. He is regularly the target of vitriol from North Korea's official propaganda organs, which have called him "human scum" and threatened to "physically eliminate" him. He defected from North Korea in the late 1990s and has spent much of his time in the South sending information back into his country of birth.

He contends that the North Korean government isolates its people from information it deems salacious, which amounts to almost everything except propaganda that glorifies the Kim dynasty. Access to cultural content from the U.S. and South Korea can change North Koreans' mind and spur change there, Park contends.

"We just mean to send a peaceful message," he told the Times last month.

Boroweic is a special correspondent.