Hot air over Koreas — fresh balloon flights into North spark tension

SEOUL, South Korea – Tensions between the two Koreas are rising as a long-cooled flashpoint heats up once again. Private activists in South Korea are poised to resume launching balloons bearing anti-regime messages into North Korea.

Though the move is unlikely to lead to armed clashes, the issue highlights Pyongyang‘s intense defensiveness toward any criticism of the family of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the heavily armed, divided peninsula.

On Wednesday, Pyongyang state media lashed out at Seoul’s recent move to legalize the dispatch of the balloons — frequently carrying anti-Kim leaflets and images — over the border, overturning a prohibition on the practice adopted in 2020.

“It is the stand of the enraged revolutionary armed forces … to pour a shower of shells into the bulwark of the region of South Korean puppets as well as the base of leaflet-scattering,” stormed an article in the North’s Korea Central News Agency, as monitored by South Korean media here.

Characterizing the efforts as a pre-emptive attack as part of war preparations for a wider war, the article dialed up the shrillness, warning, “There is no guarantee such military conflicts as in Europe and the Middle East would not break out on the Korean peninsula.”

On Thursday, Seoul’s Ministry of Unification returned fire in more measured terms, saying in a statement, “We sternly warn North Korea against acting rashly.”

South Korea‘s shifting policy as the more conservative administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol took power last year underscores the deep divisions over how to deal with the Kim regime. North Korea‘s propaganda offensive appears designed to widen those divisions.

Many South Koreans are torn between sympathy for a poverty-struck sibling nation and a loathing of its dictatorial government and a fear that the North’s hostility could lead to military aggression.
Balloon battles

For decades, conservative activists – many of them North Korean defectors – have been releasing balloons northward over the heavily guarded DMZ that separates the two Koreas. Different groups attach different objects to the balloons, including anti-state and anti-Kim messaging and imagery, global media and information, even short-wave radios. Sometimes, seeds and U.S. dollars are added as an incentive to struggling ordinary North Koreans to pick up the balloons’ contents.

The previous left-wing government of President Moon Jae-in opposed the provocative balloon launches as it sought to engage with North Korea more deeply and frequently than had any previous South Korean administration. That rapprochement was undermined when former President Trump’s unusual direct diplomacy with Mr. Kim broke down without a deal in 2019.

Even after that setback, the Moon administration outlawed the dispatch of propaganda balloons in 2020. The government cited in part the fears of South Koreans living in the border area, who reportedly worried about being targeted by North Korean counter-fire.

Violators faced fines and jail terms, but the prohibition sparked intense debate.

President Yoon changed the approach to the North and the balloon law when he came to office in 2022. The Moon ban was overturned by the Constitutional Court in September, and the Unification Ministry is reportedly finalizing administrative issues that will clear the way for activists to resume the balloon campaigns.

The North’s threatening rhetoric in the face of the moves has largely been shrugged off in Seoul. No unusual military movements have been detected in the North, and South Koreans – long familiar with Pyongyang’s verbal bombast – are not diving into bunkers.

“If you take the correlation between North Korean threats and North Korea carrying them out, there is not a high correlation,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea specialist at the Asan Institute, a Seoul think tank. “What [Pyongyang] says often does not translate into actual action.”

Militarily, North Korea is deterred by the South Korea-U.S. alliance. The security impact of the anti-Kim leaflets is likely low.

“If a leaflet falls on a North Koreans’ head, it will not turn that North Korean into a freedom fighter,” Mr. Go said.

“From my perspective, the social or political impact is minimal,” agreed Moon Chung-in, a professor emeritus at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “Often, because of the winds, one out of a hundred leaflets might fall in North Korea, they usually fall” in the DMZ.

Even so, it seems clear that North Korea is intensely sensitive to the flights.

In 2011, a Pyongyang-funded assassin attempted to kill a prominent balloon flyer with poisoned needles, only to be foiled by South Korean agents. In 2014, there was a brief exchange of small arms fire over the DMZ that may have been connected to North Korean anger at the flights.

The most spectacular fit of pique came in 2020, when North Korean military engineers blew up a South Korea-funded liaison office — its operations had been suspended and nobody was inside — established outside the North Korean town of Kaesong.

Pyongyang feels compelled to act.

North Korea regards South Korea allowing the dispatch of propaganda leaflets as an act of antagonism, and since it is a hostile action, they should be met by equal action,” said Yonsei University’s Mr. Moon, who advised the Seoul administrations which engaged with North Korea. Not responding, he said, would be seen as “a sign of weakness” in Pyongyang.

With communications between the two sides largely cut off, “the North Korean military on the front line want to show their loyalty,” Mr. Moon said. “That loyalty can be manifested in a strong reaction.”
Propaganda value

Another issue that the Moon administration cited to justify the balloon ban was the potential danger to ordinary North Koreans who find the balloons. They are compelled to hand them in to regime authorities, and failure to do so can lead to punishment.

But Mr. Go derides the notion, using a World War II analogy.

“That is basically like France’s Vichy Regime telling the Resistance not to take action [against the Germans] as their action puts innocent French people in danger,” he said. “It’s the same logic.”

Even so, though Pyongyang may feel the need to respond, the balloon conundrum offers the Kim regime new opportunities to widen fissures in the democratic South.

“North Koreans know there is dissent about it in South Korea, so they know they can score some political points and divide society,” Mr. Go said. “Their policy makers understand political warfare — it is part of the communist manual.”

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