SEOUL -- Along with the formidable array of rockets, missiles and land mines deployed at the demilitarized zone between the Koreas, a secret weapon is being unleashed this summer that foes of communist North Korea hope will be even more devastating than any conventional ordnance.
These are no ordinary party favors, but durable, vinyl balloons designed to carry brochures, money and, most important, tiny transistor radios that can broadcast news of the outside world.
As the international crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program increasingly appears to be deadlocked, with diplomacy, threats and pleas failing to budge the regime in Pyongyang, psychological operations are attracting the attention of both U.S. officials and activist groups.
Sometime in the next few weeks, wind conditions permitting, a group of activists plans to launch a fleet of several thousand across the 2 1/2-mile-wide DMZ with the hope that they can change North Korea from within.
Each balloon will be about 3 feet in diameter and carry a radio weighing no more than 5 ounces that can fit into the palm of one’s hand. The equivalent of about $1 in North Korean money will be included as an incentive for North Koreans to pick up the parcels instead of reporting them to authorities.
The project is being organized by Douglas Shin, a Korean American pastor from Artesia, Calif., and Norbert Vollertsen, a German physician. Both have been involved with other daring ventures, most notably a rash of embassy takeovers last year in China on behalf of North Korean defectors.
“The North Koreans are thirsty for any information from outside,” said Shin. “They have been prohibited from contact with outsiders for so long that they are like cactus in the desert looking for water. They will absorb whatever they can get.”
This is not the first time balloons have been deployed across the DMZ. Both North Koreans and South Koreans have traded barrages of propaganda-bearing balloons during times of tension since the 1950s, and the U.S. military is believed to have done the same on occasion, according to Korean sources. Last year, Christian missionaries sent balloons bearing biblical verses wafting across the Chinese border into North Korea.
But it is only recently that radios have become small and inexpensive enough to be sent in large quantities by balloon.
North Korean-made radios are designed to pick up only official government broadcasts, which supply little actual news. Shin’s group considered sending in radios fixed to pro-Western stations, but decided that it did not want to replace one form of propaganda with another.
There is a hope, however, that North Koreans will tune in to programming such as Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-government-funded service that has been broadcast into North Korea since 1997.
“The situation in North Korea now is very similar to what happened in Eastern Europe. Listening to foreign broadcasts is illegal, but controls are loosening and people do it anyway,” said Ahn Jae Hoon, director of Radio Free Asia’s Korean-language service. Human rights advocates say there is an increasing number of illegal radios in North Korea, brought in by smugglers, tourists, missionaries and possibly by covert operations.
Ahn said he has heard isolated accounts from North Korean defectors of radios being dropped by balloon near the Chinese border, but he has not been able to determine who might have launched them.
Two U.S. congressmen from California, Edward R. Royce (R-Fullerton) and Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), last month introduced legislation that would extend the Korean-language service of Radio Free Asia from four to 24 hours a day and have called for the U.S. government to provide radios.
North Korea has accused the U.S. government of sending radios into the country.
“Recently, the U.S. imperialists brought a great number of transistor radios into [North Korea] to destabilize the country,” said a commentary published this month in the official newspaper Rodong Shinmun. The commentary also said Radio Free Asia was trying to spread “the American way of corrupt mental, cultural and moral life among Asian countries.”
While this type of operation would be highly classified, the crisis over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons has heightened interest in measures to weaken the regime’s grip. Sources in Washington say they would not be surprised if a U.S. radio-dropping program exists.
“We’re spending a lot of money on broadcasting,” said one Senate staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity, referring to Radio Free Asia. “It would be strange if we’re not spending money to try to let people hear it.”
Experts in psychological warfare expressed mixed opinions about the feasibility of the balloon project. One North Korean defector, who in the 1990s was assigned to an army unit responsible for confiscating South Korean propaganda, recalls that Pyongyang used to tell people that items sent across the DMZ by balloon were poisoned.
“People were afraid to touch it, because they were told their hand would rot or they would go blind. But then people began to realize that was a lie,” said Kang Sung Nam, 31, who lives in Seoul now and, like many defectors, uses an assumed name. “Today things are so bad, they’ll go after the balloon, keep the money and the radio too, and not report it to authorities.”
A South Korean military officer who specializes in psychological operations said that nonprofit groups might lack the technical knowledge for a successful balloon operation.
“You need to consider wind direction. You need a balloon that can take the weight of the radio and a radio that is wrapped in such a way that it won’t break when it falls,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The South Korean military stopped sending propaganda across the DMZ by balloon a few years ago because of warming relations. Psychological operations today are more subtle, the officer said.
One project at the DMZ uses loudspeakers to broadcast the time of day -- an attention-getter because few North Korean soldiers own wristwatches. There are also neon billboards that flash weather forecasts.
“It is not explicitly political. But as it is repeated and [the soldiers] find it is accurate, they build trust in our messages. That psychologically has a big impact,” said the officer.
The North Koreans are still sending propaganda by balloon, though with subtler messages.
“It used to be outright propaganda about the fatherland and the need for unification,” said Cynthia Toffey, an American artist who lives near the DMZ. “Now we are seeing pictures of [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il with a scenic background -- there was one with a too-orange sunset, almost Technicolor, reading, ‘Best wishes for you and your family.’ ”
Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.