korea balloon propaganda
Yonhap. Lee Jong-gun/AP
South Korean members of the Abductee's Family Union launch a huge helium balloon
containing some leaflets condemning North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Balloon Propaganda Strains North-South Korea Relations

November 24, 2008 06:58 AM
by Denis Cummings
South Korean activists launching leaflet-filled balloons into North Korea have angered the North Korean government and drawn criticism from the South Korean government.

South Koreans Launch Balloons of Leaflets into North Korea

For the last five years, South Korean activists, including members of the Representatives of the Abductees Family Union and North Korean defectors, have launched balloons carrying leaflets into North Korea. The leaflets display messages critical of the North Korean government and encourage North Koreans to defect.

Its recent campaigns have included leaflets explaining that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is in poor health and near death. “Your ‘great’ leader’s last days are approaching,” read one leaflet. “The dictator has collapsed from illness.”

North Korea, which made little attempt to stop prior balloon campaigns, has responded angrily to the leaflets concerning Kim’s health. On Nov. 12, it threatened to close the border between the two countries beginning on Dec. 1 if the South Korean government did not stop the balloons.    

The tensions come during a period of deteriorating relations between the two countries following the election of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. The conservative Lee has dropped the “sunshine policy” of his two predecessors, which promoted peaceful cooperation. He has cut off large amounts of aid to North Korea and demanded that it abandon its nuclear program.

Two important developments under the “sunshine policy” may be at risk. First, North Korea has called the balloon campaigns a violation of a 2004 agreement to cease propaganda campaigns, which may signal a return of the government propaganda campaigns of the ’80s and ’90s.

Secondly, North Korea is threatening to cut off South Korean access to the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Built in 2003 to employ North Koreans in factories controlled by South Korean companies, it had come to represent improving relations between the two countries. If North Korea does close the border, it would effectively shut down the factories and leave over 33,000 North Koreans out of work, a devastating blow to its own economy.
The South Korean government is hoping to avoid further conflict and has asked the activists to cease sending balloons into North Korea. The activists are protected by freedom of speech laws, however, and have shown no sign of stopping their campaigns.

Opinion & Analysis: South Korea debates balloon propaganda

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification has criticized the balloon activists for stirring up tension and asked them to stop. Others in South Korea have criticized the activists, as well, including South Korea daily newspaper, The Hankyoreh.

“The leaflets are essentially acts of provocation, telling people to pursue an overthrow of the North Korean system, and they invalidate all existing inter-Korean relations,” it argues in an editorial. “If these acts continue, not only will the relationship of coexistence and co-prosperity spoken of by the government end as empty words, a Cold War-style hostile structure of confrontation could reemerge.”

The activists, however, believe their actions are justified. “Our leaflets tell North Koreans about some basic and private aspects of the life of Kim Jong-il,” says Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector. “You can see it’s effective because of the way North Korea is responding … if we stop, we’d be giving in to their blackmail.”

Related Topic: Balloon bombs

Balloons have been used in the past to launch violent attacks on enemy territories. The first known balloon attack—and the first ever air raid—was launched in 1849 by Austria. It tried to attack Venice with about 200 balloons packed with 28 pounds of explosives each. The attacks were not successful, however, as most exploded harmlessly in the air or fell into water.

During World War II, Japan launched 9,000 balloon bombs with a 15-kilogram bomb each and two incendiary devices toward the West Coast of the United States. It is unknown how much damages these bombs did, though one did kill a woman and five children.

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