From 1970 to 1976, Kim Yong-hwa worked as a driver at the 4th Corps headquarters in Okkye-dong, Haeju City in South Hwanghae Province, North Korea, right on the border with the South.
When floods hit the South, he saw pigs and beds coming down from the Imjin River and floating in the sea.
“I realized many things [about the South],” Kim tells NK News, admitting he didn’t know anything about his southern neighbors as he rifled through the furniture which had washed up on the beach.
It’s unlikely that he knew then that these simple discoveries would inspire a campaign to end the North Korean regime. But for almost a year, Kim (now 63 years old) and his fellow defectors have been throwing hundreds of plastic bottles filled with rice into the West Sea in South Korea, hoping that the North Koreans living across the heavily fortified border can satiate their hunger and, like Kim did all those years ago, learn about the outside world.
The rice goes into plastic bottles of South Korean-produced spring water, and are sent without removing the labels, to prove to the North Koreans who find them that the rice is sent from the South.
Kim tried to start the project in 2007, but was shocked at how few people wanted to help out.
“South Koreans boast about their rice stockpiles, but there is no rice if we ask them to provide it,” he says – a lack of charity which meant the project had to be put on hold.
But after a ten-year hiatus – in April 2016 – Kim was able to start sending 2-liter plastic bottles filled with, depending on the situation, either 1.2-1.4 kilograms of rice or medication into the sea to North Korea.
Kim is a well-known defector in South Korea: in 2005, he established the North Korean Refugees Human Rights Association to help other defectors avoid the difficulties he faced for 13 years after defecting from the North in 1988.
Kim stowed away on a ship in 1995 to the South from China after he was imprisoned in Vietnam and Laos, but he was put behind bars for three years in the South again as the South Korean government didn’t recognize him as a North Korean defector – believing him to be an ethnic Korean illegal immigrant from China.
He took refuge and was again imprisoned in Japan in 1998. After all this hardship, he was able to settle in South Korea in 2001.
Now, Kim and his colleagues transfer rice into hundreds of plastic bottles by hand, sending anywhere from 200 to 900kg of rice per drop off – usually at the wharf of Ganghwa Island located in the West Sea. Kim estimates that he and his fellow defectors have, as of March 11, thrown plastic bottles into the sea 21 times since last April.
“I want to deliver hope to the areas where people are oppressed and have the most difficulties”
Kim wants to send the rice to North Korea’s Hwanghae and Kangwon Provinces, where he believes information access is more limited and freedom of movement is more restricted compared to the northern border areas between the North and China.
“People in Hwanghae and Gangwon Province have only come across South Korean goods sent from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and therefore many people have no clue how good South Korean rice and medicine is.”
Kim and other North Korean defectors have sent more than 10 tons of rice, using more than 90,000 plastic water bottles, hoping to give North Koreans the real truth about life in the South.
The annual per capita consumption of basic food commodities including cereals, potatoes, and soybeans is 175 kg in the DPRK, according to a report released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in April 2016.
“Specific food requirements used are: 151.3 kg of cereals (including 58 kg of milled rice, 81.8 kg of maize, 6.2 kg of wheat and barley and 5.3 kg of other cereals), as well as 13.4 kg of potatoes and 10 kg of soybeans in cereal equivalent,” the FAO said in the report.
If one North Korean needs 58 kg of milled rice per year, he or she consumes around 0.16kg per day. 10 tons of rice – the total amount sent by Kim and his colleagues since April last year – would provide for the daily consumption needs of 62,500 North Koreans.
Kim hopes that “people in North Korea can get to know about the South Korean society faster” through his activities.
“People rarely starve to death in border cities along the Yalu and Tumen rivers, but people in South Hwanghae Province and Kangwon Province can’t freely move because they don’t have pass cards,” Kim tells NK News. “I want to deliver hope to the areas where people are oppressed and have the most difficulties.”
Currents permitting, Kim says the rice should be reaching Ongjin County and Haeju city in South Hwanghae Province, and will be delivered to Wolsa-ri, Kwail County in South Hwanghae Province if the flow of water is faster than usual.
“We wait for the high tide, which occurs three times a month, and then send the plastic bottles in time for the high tide. It takes around 7 or 8 hours to get to the North Korean territory,” says Kim. “I’ve heard that North Korean people wait [for the rice] because they also know the tide time.”
“We could send rice to Nampo city near Pyongyang and Songrim city in North Hwanghae Province if we secure expenses and can travel by boat for two or three hours. But that’s still wishful thinking as we are short on money.”
“We are providing a framework for North Koreans to revolt against the leadership”
Unlike some other defector groups, Kim’s packages to the North don’t include propaganda leaflets: they don’t want to provide any reason for the North Korean authorities to confiscate the plastic bottles.
Kim claims that Pyongyang used to “make vile propaganda… saying a poisonous substance was included in the rice”, but that the locals quickly realized that the government was lying after feeding the rice to birds.
Now, one of Kim’s motivations is teaching North Koreans that those in South are not the enemy.
“If we prove that there are some people [on the other side of the border] who love North Koreans a little bit, those who have eaten our rice won’t aim a gun at us but at Pyongyang.”
“If we really love North Koreans, it is high time that the direction of humanitarian aid to North Korea should be changed”
DOES AID HELP THE REGIME?
Surprisingly, Kim isn’t a big supporter of Seoul’s current aid projects for North Korea.
“I don’t oppose the aid to the North,” Kim answers when asked whether he is willing to cooperate with the government if a liberal candidate takes office in May’s presidential election in the South, but says he believes that starving North Koreans don’t benefit from the help and that it strengthens the regime.
“If we provide rice for the North, it could be stored as military provisions which are used for suppressing the North Koreans. I don’t consider prohibiting unification on the Korean Peninsula as assistance,” Kim says.
“If we really love the North Koreans, it is high time that the direction of humanitarian aid to North Korea should be changed,” Kim adds, suggesting the South instead send bread and milk which can’t be stored long term by authorities.
South Korea’s food aid to North Korea ended in 2010 under the Lee Myung-bak administration. But the late President Roh Moo-hyun provided 500,000 tons of rice worth 178.7 billion Korean Won (around USD155.6 million) in 2005 and the late President Kim Dae-jung sent aid shipments totaling 300,000 tons of imported rice and 200,000 tons of Chinese corn in 2000.
“The Republic of Korea (ROK) talks a lot about unification, but I think people believe that it can be achieved for free”
Bottles aren’t the first delivery method Kim and his group have attempted. Between 2010 and 2014, they sent choco pies and other food into North Korea with balloons.
“I sent 500kg of choco pies for the first time and the pies dropped near Kim Il Sung statue located at Songnim city in North Hwanghae Province passing South Hwanghae Province,” Kim says. “A defector told me that people said ‘the sky brings us good luck’ after seeing it.”
This story prompted Kim to try to raise funds to expand these activities, but, unfortunately, he couldn’t find anyone who was willing to provide financial assistance in the South. Strapped for cash, he was forced to send chocolate pies with imminent expiration dates.
He had to give up flying balloons eventually, due to the high costs: he spent 10 million Korean Won (USD8,644) at a time. As a cheaper alternative, he and his colleagues began throwing bottles into the sea.
Three years ago, Kim also sent dozens of second-hand bicycle inner tubes across the border via balloons.
“A father and a son defected to the South riding the tube and floating to [the northernmost] Baengnyeong Island [in the Yellow Sea],” Kim says. “I realized that the scores of tubes that I sent could save people’s life and give them freedom.”
The story has inspired Kim to expand his work, but he claims that neither the Ministry of Unification (MOU) and the Korea Hana Foundation, a government-run agency charged with offering support to defectors, hasn’t offered a single dollar.
“The Republic of Korea talks a lot about unification, but I think people believe that the unification can be achieved for free,” Kim complains.
But he says he bears no grudge against South Koreans but he is despondent about the ROK government and its system – and says he is discriminated against in his new home.
“I don’t know what to say about my plan, but I am determined to leave the country now,” Kim says. “I don’t want to be treated as a second-class citizen anymore in the ROK and the reality conflicts with conditions needed for accomplishing unification.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Photo provided by Kim Yong-hwa, Photos can’t be distributed and modified in any manner without the written consent of Kim and NK News
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