Fighting for Freedom with Balloons: The Story of Lee Min-Bok
by Luis Pablo de la Horra
Two years ago today, on April 27, 2018, a summit took place between the president of South Korea and North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, to discuss several key issues, including the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the improvement of inter-Korean relations, and the establishment of peace after seven decades of war.
A few days later, Lee Min-bok received a call from the South Korean government demanding him to end the anti-North Korean propaganda campaign he had been carrying out for the last 15 years.
But who is Lee Min-bok? Lee was born in 1958 in North Korea, one of the most opaque and oppressive countries in the world. He worked for the Agricultural Research Institute in Pyongyang until 1991 when he made a decision that would change his life: he fled the country in the pursuit of freedom. Four years later, he arrived in South Korea, the promised land for millions of slaves living in one of the last communist countries in the world.
When Lee tried the sweet taste of freedom – something that he couldn’t do until he was in his thirties, he realized that he had to dedicate the rest of his life to helping those who were still under the yoke of communism in North Korea.
Between 2003 and 2018, when he was forced to abandon his propaganda campaign in virtue of the Panmunjom agreement whereby both countries agreed to cease hostilities at the border, Lee Min-bok sent more than 300 million balloons with leaflets and pen drives full of anti-Kim Jong-un propaganda across the border. His purpose was to let his compatriots know that there was a better life waiting for them on the other side of the border.
Lee’s campaign against the North Korean regime wasn’t without risk. Kim Jong-un’s government tried to stop him several times, sending even a spy to kill him. Fortunately, South Korean authorities arrested the spy before he got the chance to do so.
What led Lee to dedicate his life to fight the North Korean dictatorship in such a peculiar way? After all, once he escaped from Pyongyang, he could have started an anonymous new life in South Korea, leaving behind the tragic memories of three decades of communism.
To answer this question, we have to go back to 1990, when Lee first read an anti-communist leaflet similar to those he himself would send across the border a decade later. This leaflet was an eye-opener for him. He became aware that the country where he was born and for which he had been working for for years was led by an oppressive and inhumane government; a regime responsible for thousands of deaths since the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (its official name) was founded in 1948.
This episode changed his life, leading him to flee the country and start a campaign to raise awareness among the indoctrinated North Korean population about the true face of the regime.
Unfortunately, Lee’s balloon launches were halted two years ago by the South Korean authorities as a result of the Panmunjom agreement, although it is possible that he has continued to send balloons after the ban.
One could argue that his efforts were in vain. How can a few pamphlets and leaflets end with a 72 year-old tyranny? However, Lee Min-bok’s purpose was much more modest, namely: to open the eyes of a people that has never experienced firsthand the wonders of freedom and prosperity. If he managed to do so for just one North Korean, we can confidently say that his fight for freedom was well worth it.
Luis Pablo de la Horra is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of Valladolid. His work has been published in several media outlets, including The American Conservative, CapX and Intellectual Takeout.
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