[Reporter’s notebook] Trash balloons, propaganda leaflets are no way for Koreas to communicate

Posted on : 2024-05-31 17:27 KST Modified on : 2024-05-31 17:27 KST
Pyongyang’s recent stunt was a response to the Yoon administration turning a blind eye to defector groups sending leaflets into North Korea
A balloon presumed to have been sent by North Korea lands in a garden in Yongin, outside of Seoul, on May 29, 2024. (Yonhap) 
A balloon presumed to have been sent by North Korea lands in a garden in Yongin, outside of Seoul, on May 29, 2024. (Yonhap) 

Currently, North and South Korea are completely cut off from one another. The two sides lack even the most basic safeguards to prevent misunderstandings or clashes. The last time the two Koreas sat down for any form of dialogue was five and a half years ago, in December 2018, when the two sides discussed sports cooperation. Any hotlines used for inter-Korean communication have been silent for the past 14 months, since April 7, 2023. Trash balloons are the only form of communication to cross the border between the two Koreas. This bizarre situation is both tragic and dangerous. 

North Korea started to launch its balloons full of excrement and trash toward the South on Tuesday night, and Kim Yo-jong issued a statement titled, “The ROK is not entitled to criticize the freedom of expression of the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” on Wednesday night. The title is a direct jab at how the Yoon Suk-yeol administration is turning a blind eye to balloons that North Korean defector organizations are sending to North Korea, claiming that such behavior falls under the freedom of expression. 

I felt a wave of mixed emotions while reading Kim’s statement. I even felt some relief when reading the line saying that the North would respond to leaflets on a “case-to-case basis by scattering rubbish dozens of times more than those being scattered to us.” This clause shows that, for the time being, North Korea won't respond to balloons with gunfire. 

This differs highly from responses in October 2014 and June 2020, when North Korea responded to balloons sent by North Korean defectors and Protestant organizations with snipers and by blowing up the Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office in Kaesong, respectively. 

Still, the chances of military conflict are high. In a press statement issued on Sunday by Kim Kang-il, North Korea’s vice minister of national defense, North Korea warned, “We may exercise our self-defensive power on or under the water at any moment,” in response to the activities of South Korea’s Navy and Coast Guards in waters near the border.  

To make matters worse, June marks crab fishing season, when fishing boats from South Korea, North Korea and China all rush to the waters around the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea. Those waters may as well be thin ice. 

The history between the divided Koreas shows that the leaflet issue acts as a compass in inter-Korea relations. When tensions have been high, the issue has provided a spark for conflict, and when inter-Korea talks resumed, the issue receded to the sidelines. Adequate responses to the leaflet issue are extremely important, as can be seen in the way that recognizing and respecting each other’s system, swearing off interference in each other’s internal affairs, and forswearing slander, vilification, sabotage or subversion against one another are written as the first four articles of the 1991 Inter-Korean Basic Agreement. 

Even at the peak of the Cold War in 1972, the two countries agreed in their first written agreement — the 1972 July 4 Joint Communique — to not “slander or defame each other.” Leaflets are simply another form of slander and defamation. 

However, the Yoon administration seems to be out of touch with how easily leaflets can ignite further conflict, and in fact, is suspected of knowingly fanning the flames of the issue. For example, Yoon ordered the Ministry of Unification to prepare for psychological war during an official meeting, while Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho declared that South Korea would pursue a policy of “advancing northward for freedom.” Of course, leaflets are part and parcel of such psychological war and in the northward advance for freedom. 

In response to a recent announcement by the North Korean defector organization Fighters for Free North Korea saying that they had sent balloons carrying leaflets to North Korea, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Unification made an almost offhand remark by stating, “We are taking into account the spirit of the Constitutional Court’s decision to guarantee freedom of expression.” 

The Yoon administration must seriously consider its responsibility to protect the lives and safety of South Koreans, including those living along the border near the DMZ. 

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr

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