Launching balloons into North Korea is never boring work, but these are especially interesting times to be a launcher. “Why can’t you just wait to launch?” is the question one hears repeatedly, often urgently and in frustration, asked by government officials, police, media, Facebook commenters, and even friends. Are you bigger than the peace process? Are you blind to the risk to which you are subjecting all of us? Are your partisan goals more important than everyone’s peace? The Ministry of Unification is allegedly even offering support to at least some launchers to switch to other human rights activities, ones that the MOU judges don’t violate the spirit of the recent peace summit so egregiously. Everyone seems moved by the spirit of healthy compromise and mutual respect these days—everyone, that is, except for balloon launchers.
I certainly can’t speak for all balloon launchers. My organization, Voice of the Martyrs Korea, is indeed one of the “big three” launchers by volume of materials launched, but we have little in common with other organizations which launch balloons. We launch only Bible portions, not human rights flyers. We use the version of the Bible published by the North Korean government, which the North Korean government insists can be read legally by all North Koreans, as according to the North Korean constitution. We always announce our launches to the police but never to the media. We launch only at night and in remote, unpopulated areas. We use expensive cutting-edge technology to make sure our balloons and Bibles make it safely and unobtrusively into North Korea—everything from advanced computer modeling to GPS tracking to tiny weather balloons that are too small for radar and that pop without a trace rather than landing; and, beginning this year, helium gas only, not the more controversial (though far less expensive) hydrogen.
And clearly the balloons are having an impact. North Korea Human Rights Records Preservation House’s “2015 White Paper on Religious Freedom in North Korea” reports that the number of North Koreans who saw a Bible while in North Korea increased from near 0% in the year 2000 to 7.6% by 2014. That’s certainly not only due to our balloon Bibles; after all, Voice of the Martyrs Korea and other organizations get Bibles into North Korea through a host of other channels. But all those other channels combined don’t add up to anywhere near the impact of the 40,000 Bibles we’ve launched annually for more than a decade.
Still, it’s more than understandable to ask: Should a peace process be risked just so Christians can proselytize and North Korean defectors can protest? Freedom of expression and freedom of religion are important values, but are they so absolute that they can trump (no pun intended) compelling national interests?
This is the way the debate is typically framed, and thus it is no wonder so few would side with the balloon launchers. Yet, is it possible that the real problem is with the framing of the debate itself?
To ask, “Can’t you just wait to launch?” is in essence to ask, “Why can’t you respect and trust the peace process?” But it is possible to sincerely respect a peace process between governments and behave honorably towards it, without having our own understanding and practices of peace limited by it.
Put differently, peace is too important and too big to be arrogated solely to governments. There is a kind of peace that can be manufactured when those south of the DMZ line up behind President Moon and those north of the DMZ line up behind Kim Jong Un and no one jumps the queue. But it is a pre-processed, institutionalized peace, with government-supplied flags, photos suitable for social media, and sporting and cultural exchanges to build the kinds of relationships with which governments are comfortable, at the pace with which they are comfortable. It is peace via four-point declaration. Historically, peace by declaration is frail, anemic, and contrived, usually found on life support, and always needing force to protect and preserve it.
By contrast, we need only recall the images of people climbing over the Berlin Wall to remind ourselves that true peace among a divided people typically breaks out in a human flood, not a declaration, and government’s role in the process is not to originate, achieve, define, schedule, and orchestrate it but rather to simply stop holding it back. It is not a shared love of sport and culture that draws the two Koreas together at the deepest level, nor is it the allure of a trans-Asian railroad, nor even a joint aversion to war. It is, quite simply, Koreanness. The peoples of these countries do not need to be chaperoned in their interactions, or even re-introduced. Despite the estrangement of the young, enough natural ties still remain such that were the governments involved simply to pledge not to blow anybody up, ordinary Korean people would instinctively know a surprising amount about how to initiate the core processes required to power the lengthy, difficult, and expensive work that lay ahead. It’s one of the benefits of a Confucian culture, and one of the generally true things about human beings once artificial (i.e., government erected and maintained) barriers are removed.
This is not a naïve proposal to achieve peace by “tearing down that wall” (though, interestingly, there may be more historical precedent for that than for the kind of peace process envisioned by the Panmunjom Declaration). Instead, it is an observation that one can sincerely respect governments’ roles in peacemaking by doing something more and other than standing down and deferring to governmental efforts. In fact, one shows respect by doing one’s one part for peace, making one’s unique contribution—whether governments like it, understand it, or can fit it into their own process. Authentic peace is not a spectator sport, not a one-track effort, not an orderly three-act play. It is not so much negotiated by governments as it is recognized by them; that is, peace breaks out, not altogether differently than how war does. As war represents the simultaneous parallel failure of many societal organs, peace represents their simultaneous parallel renewal beyond any of one of their singular control or orchestration. Each organ has a distinct and concurrent role to play in peacemaking, and part of any peace process is being cognizant of the inability of any one organ to make it happen or even to lead it, humble enough to accept that, and wise enough to make sufficient space for it. Christians would say peace comes in God’s time, and rarely through official channels. But regardless of one’s faith background, history reveals that peace somehow happens across a society, not from the top down; no one gets to run the thing, not even the presidents.
In the case of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, we launch Bibles not in an effort to proselytize for Christian converts but rather as our contribution to the peace process: We support North Korean underground Christians’ efforts to foster a different calculus for the valuing of individual human life in North Korea. According to the BIble, one is human (and deserves humane treatment) not because one is loyal and useful to the government but simply because one is created in the image of God—an inalienable state which can’t be granted by governments nor withheld by them. We have carefully launched this message (a North Korean message, translated by the North Korean government and protected by the North Korean government) into North Korea for more than a decade. With full submission to the laws (and punishments) of South Korea we have launched this message even through the death of Kim Jong Il, the sinking of the Cheonan, and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong. These launches have yet to start a war or derail a single step towards peace. The Bibles reaching ordinary North Koreans, however, brought meaning, forgiveness, and, yes, peace to many hearts, as our diverse and far-flung network inside and around North Korea can readily attest.
Christians may have a different vision of peace than governments, but it would be passing strange for a governmental peace process to be strengthened and safeguarded by snuffing out parallel peaceful efforts—including, I might note on behalf of other launchers, peaceful protest, which has historically contributed at least as much to the restoration and maintenance of peace in civil societies as have sports and cultural exchanges and blueprints for intercontinental railroads. The content of the flyers of these other launchers may on occasion be bombastic or crude, but to describe the flyers as “anti-North Korean”, as many purportedly neutral global news outlets regrettably are, is to make the egregious error of identifying all North Koreans as one with their leader, thus politicizing them. This politicization of inter-Korean relationships is arguably the very thing that stands as the greatest impediment to peace (or, at least the overcoming of that politicization offers peace the greatest hope for success). Balloon launchers launch in order to overcome the barriers to direct communication between ordinary Koreans that continue to be maintained by the governments of both Koreas. Ordinary Koreans did not erect the DMZ. Governments did. The DMZ is not the product of ordinary Koreans mistrusting each other. It is the product of ordinary Koreans trusting governments too much, and entrusting them with too much; namely, the DMZ reflects the politicization of the relationships between ordinary Koreans. A peace process that retains that politicization, even in reconfigured form—i.e., with North Koreans and South Koreans interacting with each other as North Koreans and South Koreans through carefully controlled and choreographed events and exchanges—is, at worst, doomed to fail or, at best, certain to be overtaken at some point by Koreans insisting that peace means the unmediated ability to interact with each other simply as Koreans, human beings, and families. “Something there is that doesn't love a wall/ That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,” wrote Robert Frost. The frozen ground swell of a human rights balloon flyer is sometimes not pretty, but it beats a wall—especially if the wall is keeping you away from those you love on the other side.
Governments have their part in making peace, but we must be careful not to permit them to monopolize our means of making peace and of interacting with each other—either before, during, or after their periodic peacemaking efforts. Governments have their part in making peace, but as cultural commentator Andy Crouch notes, “We no longer need to invest our political structures with hopes of eternal rescue from the abyss of chaos.” The North Korean government may not be launching balloons southward these days (the weather would not permit it this time of year anyway), but they continue to launch salvos against Japan and the United States without fear of derailing the peace process; those in the south should be similarly comfortable that we needn't worry too much about north-bound flyers propelling us back to the brink of war. Instead, we should worry about something far more vexing: Is it possible that after 65 years, we still haven’t learned not to cede our peacemaking efforts and imaginations and even familial relationships to the governments that took them away from us in the first place?