Why high tensions and loudspeakers make for a dangerous mix along the DMZ

Posted on : 2024-06-03 17:12 KST Modified on : 2024-06-03 17:12 KST
History shows that the return of propaganda loudspeakers to the inter-Korean border could lead to a rapid escalation
Chang Ho-jin, the presidential office’s national security adviser, gives a briefing of an expanded meeting of the National Security Council at the presidential office on June 2, 2024. (Yonhap)
Chang Ho-jin, the presidential office’s national security adviser, gives a briefing of an expanded meeting of the National Security Council at the presidential office on June 2, 2024. (Yonhap)


Inter-Korean tensions look poised to rise after Korea’s presidential office indicated that it was willing to consider resuming loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the border with North Korea, which have been discontinued since 2018. 

The announcement came after an emergency meeting of the National Security Council on Sunday following a second day of trash-filled balloons being floated across the border by North Korea. 

“If the resumption of loudspeaker broadcasts is not off the table, then we will need to go through the necessary processes if we decide to resume them,” said a high-level official working in the presidential office. 

“Decisions on response measures will be made right away, without hesitation,” the official added. 

On the same day, military authorities announced that South Korea’s armed forces “maintain a readiness posture to carry out necessary countermeasures.” 

Loudspeaker broadcasts, which have been discontinued since the leaders of South and North Korea signed the Panmunjom Declaration in April 2018, are a typical form of psychological warfare waged by Seoul. They’ve also served as a barometer for inter-Korean relations. 

The broadcasts started in 1963 and were suspended for the first time under an inter-Korean agreement reached during the Roh Moo-hyun administration in 2004. South Korea has resumed the broadcasts during times of peak military tension, such as when North Korea sunk the ROKS Cheonan in March 2010, when North Korean PMD series mines exploded in the DMZ and made amputees of two South Korean soldiers in August 2015, and when Pyongyang conducted its the fourth round of nuclear tests in January 2016. 

Up until April 2018, South Korea’s front-line regiments operated fixed and mobile loudspeakers in over 40 locations near the Military Demarcation Line, also known as the Armistice Line. These speakers would broadcast everything from objective news about North Korea to K-pop and weather forecasts, and could be heard from distances up to 30 km. From the 1960s to the 80s, the broadcasts focused on content that would persuade defection among North Korean soldiers, but shifted to K-pop and cultural content from 2010 onward. 

Advocates of the broadcasts claim they instill seeds of discontent among North Korean soldiers and citizens. North Korea has repeatedly claimed that civilians cannot go within 30 km of the MDL, making the broadcasts ineffective. 

North Korea has referred to broadcasts about its political oppression and human rights abuses as “threats to the regime,” going as far as launching artillery at speakers at times. When South Korea resumed broadcasts in response to the DMZ mine explosions in August 2015, North Korea fired one round from an anti-aircraft gun and three artillery shells at the speakers. The South responded by firing 28 155 mm artillery shells in the direction of fire. North Korea then declared a “quasi-state of war,” and the two Koreas went to the brink of full-on war. 

This state of escalated tensions continued until high-level military talks on Aug. 25 of that year resulted in North Korea releasing a statement of regret regarding the mine explosions and South Korea promising to suspend loudspeaker broadcasts. 

If South Korea resumes the broadcasts, it’s likely that North Korea will do the same. It will also increase the likelihood of another North Korean artillery attack in the direction of the speakers. The South would respond by bolstering military alertness along the border and dispatch artillery units and combat regiments to the DMZ. The broadcasts would lead to a North Korean response, which would oblige a response from the South, touching off a vicious cycle. Critics say political management and diplomacy are more crucial than ever.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

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

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