KOREAN DEMILITARIZED ZONE – The oblong balloon rose into the ink-colored sky Saturday just south of one of the world’s most fortified borders, its cargo bound for North Korea.
Yet unlike countless balloon launches that shower North Korea 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 were lifted heavenward by 10 helium-filled balloons: little pink baby bootees and large black-and-blue ones for growing children and adults, all headed for impoverished North Koreans facing the oncoming winter.
“Brothers and sisters: We haven’t forgotten about your suffering,” reads a note 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 defector who years ago was inspired by a similar balloon drop when he was still in North Korea.
Trekking through the woods in 2005, he remembers, he found a leaflet that motivated him to flee North Korea. The words on the leaflet 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 semiconductor industries. That pamphlet changed my life.”
Lee defected to China that year, eventually settling with his family in Seoul, where he works at odd jobs while studying computer science. He also started a nongovernmental organization called North Korea Peace, which since 2007 has used worldwide donations to send pamphlets to the North.
This fall, Lee began sending socks instead. “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 a pale yellow parka.
“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.”
The socks could also be sold and the proceeds used to buy 22 pounds of corn, enough food for a month.
His goal is to send 1,000 pairs of socks each month.
On Saturday, 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 half a 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 and attached them to a box of about 100 socks. A timer on each package was set to open the box three hours later and disperse the contents like raindrops.
Finally, 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 Cecilia Park.
There would be more balloons, with only one spiraling back down to the ground, because of a tiny tear 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 his flock watched the balloon toss in the currents, as if not sure which way to go.
Then, to a collective sigh of relief, the little dirigible slowly righted itself and headed northward.