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South Korean activists send propaganda balloons north

Past propaganda tit-for-tats have had real-world consequences for inter-Korean relations
This handout photo released by the South Korean Defence Ministry on June 2 shows South Korean military officers checking unidentified objects believed to be North Korean trash from balloons that crossed the inter-Korea border, on a street in Seoul.

This handout photo released by the South Korean Defence Ministry on June 2 shows South Korean military officers checking unidentified objects believed to be North Korean trash from balloons that crossed the inter-Korea border, on a street in Seoul. (Photo: AFP)

Published: June 06, 2024 05:12 AM GMT
Updated: June 06, 2024 06:16 AM GMT

South Korean activists said on June 6 that they had sent 10 balloons loaded with anti-Kim Jong Un leaflets and K-pop music into North Korea, in response to hundreds of trash-filled balloons from Pyongyang.

North Korea has said its recent balloon blitz -- carrying bags of garbage such as cigarette butts and plastic waste -- was retaliation for previous missives sent by the activists.

Pyongyang called off its campaign on June 2 but has warned it would restart if more balloons came north.

Past propaganda tit-for-tats have had real-world consequences for inter-Korean relations.

South Korea has called the latest provocation from its nuclear-armed neighbor "irrational" and "low-class" but, unlike the North's spate of recent ballistic missile launches, the trash campaign does not violate UN sanctions on Kim's isolated regime.

The defector group, Fighters for Free North Korea, announced on June 6 that they had launched 10 balloons northward carrying 200,000 leaflets and 5,000 USB flash drives containing Korean pop music and TV shows, as well as thousands of one-dollar bills.

A photograph released by the group showed an activist holding up a large poster with photographs of Kim Jong Un and his sister and chief regime spokeswoman Kim Yo Jong.

"Enemy of the people Kim Jong Un sent filth and trash to the South Korean people, but we the defectors send truth and love to our fellow North Koreans!" the poster says.

The same activist group sent balloons carrying around 2,000 USB drives containing songs by South Korean singer Lim Young-woong, as well as other K-pop and K-dramas, into the North on May 10, they said earlier this week.

North Korea is extremely sensitive about its people gaining access to the South's flourishing popular culture.

Kim Yo Jong last week mocked South Korea for complaining about its balloons, saying North Koreans were simply exercising their freedom of expression -- and warning they would retaliate proportionately if more balloons materialized.

South Korea's parliament in 2020 passed a law banning the sending of anti-Kim leaflets across the border as then-president Moon Jae-in sought engagement with the North.

But the Constitutional Court struck down the law last year, calling it an undue limitation on free speech, and there are now no legal grounds for the government to block the balloons, attorney Yoo Jung-hoon told AFP.

"While there could be political criticisms that such acts do not lead to improved lives of North Koreans, there is no legal basis for the authorities to force civic groups to stop," he said.

Propaganda wars 

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol this week fully suspended a 2018 tension-reducing military deal with the North in response to the trash-carrying balloons.

The move will allow the South to resume live fire drills and restart loudspeaker propaganda campaigns along the border with the North.

The broadcasts infuriate Pyongyang, which has previously threatened artillery strikes against the loudspeaker units unless they were switched off.

"As Kim Yo Jong said they would react in proportion to anti-North leaflets from the South, Pyongyang is likely to send [more] balloons," Hong Min, a senior analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul told AFP.

"Then Seoul is expected to resume loudspeaker broadcasts along the border next week, to which the North could respond militarily."

The two Koreas' dueling propaganda has boiled over in dramatic fashion in the past.

In June 2020, following a series of vitriolic condemnations of a previous leafleting campaign, Pyongyang unilaterally cut off all official military and political communication links with the South and blew up a disused inter-Korean liaison office on its side of the border.

The latest exchanges come as analysts warn Kim is testing weapons before sending them to Russia for use in Ukraine, with South Korea's defense minister saying this weekend that Pyongyang has now shipped about 10,000 containers of arms to Moscow in return for Russian satellite know-how.

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