A South Korean Man Has Been Throwing Bottles With Rice Into the Sea for Almost 10 Years. He Has Good Reasons

Park Jung-oh has been studying the tides to throw bottles of rice and USB sticks into the Pacific since 2015.

Park Jung-oh has been throwing rice bottles into the sea for almost 10 years
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Despite some difficulties, Park Jung-oh has performed a peculiar ritual for almost a decade. After carefully studying the tides of the Pacific Ocean, he goes to the coast of South Korea to throw bottles of rice into the sea. He does this twice a month with the determination of a professional pitcher. He and his wife have even founded Kuen Saem, an organization that allows him to rely on the help of volunteers to redouble his efforts. On a single night in December 2023, they threw hundreds of bottles into the waters of the Yellow Sea.

It may seem strange, but Park’s hobby isn’t a extravagant or a meticulous attempt to pollute the Korean coastline. He wants to change the world. Specifically, he wants to change North Korea.

A bottle, rice, and a USB drive. What Park throws into the sea from the northern coast of South Korea, reaching points almost on the border, such as Seongmodo Island, are half-gallon (two-liter) plastic bottles. At first glance, these bottles appear to be containers like those people use for water or other liquids, but they’re unique. Before he throws them away, he puts grains of rice, a USB stick, and a dollar inside.

Keeping an eye on the tides. In addition to filling the bottles, Park and his colleagues have another equally, and perhaps more important, task: They study the ocean at depth, paying attention to the high and low tides and their direction. The group wants to ensure the bottles end up in the water on the day and at the time that best suits their purpose.

The task is so important to them that they consulted the Korean Institute of Ocean Science and Technology and fishermen familiar with the Yellow Sea before starting. “They advised me to thoroughly check these three factors: the date, the time, and the direction of the tide,” Park told The Korea Times.

But why is he throwing bottles with rice into the sea? Throwing plastic bottles into the sea may seem uncivilized, but Park has a good reason: solidarity. He wants the containers thrown from South Korea’s northern coast to reach the beaches of neighboring North Korea, controlled by Kim Jong-un, with the help of the tides. Park hopes that at least some of the bottles will find their way into the hands of local people who can use them. When the tides are favorable, he estimates it takes four hours for the rice bottles to cross the border.

Perhaps not all bottles reach their destination, Park has received feedback from North Koreans who have come across the strange solidarity capsules. “I once heard that a North Korean woman was suspicious of the rice, so she steamed it and gave it to a dog. Since it was good, she tasted it and thought the quality was very acceptable. She ended up selling it for a decent price and bought a lot of cheaper crops,” Park recently told the BBC. On another occasion, a family of nine leaving North Korea thanked him.

A perfectly measured package. The team studied everything that goes into the bottles to perfection. The main ingredient is rice, which weighs 3.3 pounds, with which Park and his staff are trying to help their North Korean neighbors feed themselves.

Just a year ago, CNN warned that North Korea was facing its worst food crisis since the famine of the 1990s. The report echoed the concerns of Lucas Renzi-Keller, an analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who said that supplies had fallen “below the amount needed to meet minimum human needs.”

Grains of rice and much more. During the pandemic, people put medicine and surgical masks into the plastic bottles. They often add SD cards or USB sticks with various files: K-pop songs, Korean dramas, copies of the Bible, and videos comparing the two Koreas, to name a few. Files they hope will give their northern neighbors a glimpse of life on both sides of the border. “My wish is that they find them and realize that they have been deceived by their regime,” Park confessed.

“A lot of people think there’s no electricity in North Korea, but I’ve heard that there are a lot of solar panels coming in from China that can be used to charge batteries, especially in the summer,” Park said. North Koreans also have more access to electronic devices, such as computers and cell phones, so he hopes they can take advantage of the memory cards he sends them. Sometimes, Park adds a dollar bill to the bottles so families can exchange them.

Park Jung-oh and his wife filling plastic bottles with rice

A valuable perspective. Park isn’t just another activist or South Korean who decided to help families on the other side of the border one morning. He has devoted his time, effort, and resources to preparing bottles for almost a decade—and even founded his organization, Kuen Saem, to make it more effective—because he has a singular interest in what is happening in North Korea. It's where his family is from.

Park's father defected from North Korea, forcing his family to pack up and leave the country 26 years ago. Now almost 60, Park told the BBC that he remembers scenes of starvation and soldiers with guns arriving in North Korea's Hwanghae province to seize the rice harvest.

Against all odds. To achieve their goal, Park and his staff have had to overcome more than just the tides, the wind, and the cost of filling hundreds of bottles with rice, USB sticks, and other items. In 2020, former liberal President Moon Jae-in, who headed the South Korean government, passed a law on “inter-Korean relations” that banned activists from sending propaganda critiquing Jong-un's regime to the North. Violation of the law was punishable with prison. At the time, the new scenario complicated Park’s project.

“It was the toughest time for North Korean defectors, particularly those who operated human rights programs. I stood trial eight times as the police kept trying to find fault with me, and pressed charges against me whenever they identified a minor offense on my part,” he said.

Unstoppable. Despite tensions with Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in 2020, Park continued to throw bottles of rice into the sea. In an article dedicated to Park and his activism, the BBC notes that “he had not been able to do it openly since June” of that year. Park told the outlet that he and his wife sent bottles secretly during the pandemic “because of the ban.”

Today, the ban is no longer in place. However, the fact that the government has lifted the ban doesn’t mean that Park no longer faces difficulties. He's stated that after the 2020 law was passed, he noticed a change in the treatment by the locals. It's also been more difficult for him to find donors. “They are worried about another possible change,” he suspects. Nonetheless, the activist says he won’t give up. While international media outlets like the BBC and Reuters cover his struggle, he continues going to the coast, looking towards his former home.

Images | Kuen Saem - Send Rice & Info Directly to NK People (Facebook)

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