Growing risk of military clash as 2 Koreas engage in escalating tit-for-tat along border

Posted on : 2024-06-10 18:01 KST Modified on : 2024-06-10 18:01 KST
The resumption of loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts for the first time in six years could prompt an even harsher response from North Korea
South Korean soldiers inspect loudspeakers during a drill prepping for the commencement of broadcasts to the North in early June 2024. (courtesy of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
South Korean soldiers inspect loudspeakers during a drill prepping for the commencement of broadcasts to the North in early June 2024. (courtesy of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)

The South Korean military’s decision on Sunday to restart the signature psychological warfare tactic of blaring propaganda broadcasts across the border to North Korea signals a shift. Up until now, South Korean civilian groups’ anti-North Korean leaflet balloons were met with trash-filled balloons from North Korea, but now, both countries may approach this situation as a confrontation that could involve military measures. 

South Korea’s propaganda broadcast, which was conducted temporarily on Sunday afternoon, appeared to be a warning to North Korea, declaring that South Korea is fully capable of launching full-scale propaganda broadcasts at any time if provoked, as well as being a move signaling the South’s reluctance to run straight into immediate conflict. 

However, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff revealed later on Sunday night that North Korea sent more trash-carrying balloons across the border. 

With channels of communication being completely cut off between the two Koreas, both sides have adopted hard-line stances, which only raises the risk of a military clash. 

After North Korea sent more trash-filled balloons from Saturday night to Sunday morning, the government held an emergency National Security Council meeting on Sunday and decided to resume propaganda broadcasts to North Korea. 

The military conducted a broadcast from loudspeakers near the border for about two hours from 5 pm on the same day. 

The South Korean military has restarted its loudspeaker broadcasts against North Korea, playing a radio program known as “Voice of Freedom” produced by the military’s psychological warfare unit.  The first round of broadcasts announced the suspension of the entirety of the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement from 2018, export figures for Samsung Electronics mobile phones, and information about the prices of goods in unofficial North Korean markets. Pursuant to the Panmunjom Declaration of April 2018, 24 fixed loudspeakers and 16 mobile loudspeakers operating along the border were removed or decommissioned.   

After the broadcasts, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff announced that “decisions about additional broadcasts will depend on the behavior of North Korea.” After a period of suspension, South Korea resumed its broadcasts in 2015 after PMD series mines installed in the DMZ exploded and permanently injured two South Korean soldiers. North Korea responded by firing shells in the direction of the speakers.  

“We want to make it clear that all responsibility for the current situation falls on North Korea, and we strongly demand that North Korea cease its launches of trash-filled balloons and any other base behavior,” the Joint Chiefs announced. 

The Joint Chiefs clarified that the resumption of loudspeaker broadcasts was in response to the third wave of North Korea’s trash balloons, and that additional broadcasts will follow if North Korea continues its balloon launches. Considering that North Korea has fired artillery at loudspeakers in the past, the broadcasts represent a significant elevation in inter-Korean military tension.  

How will North Korea respond this time?  

“North Korea likely expected the broadcasts after launching its waste balloons, and they probably already have a card prepared for its response,” said Hong Min, the director of North Korean research at the Korea Institute for National Unification.  

“North Korea could shoot or launch shells at the speakers as it has in the past, but since Pyongyang has officially declared inter-Korean relations as a relation between two hostile countries, the North could be aggressive this time by flaunting its status as a nuclear state. This makes things potentially more dangerous,” Hong said.  

After suspending the buffer-creating Sept. 19 inter-Korean agreement, the South Korean government has adopted the posture of responding to strength with strength, which further elevates tensions. In the face of North Korea’s launch of military reconnaissance satellites, its GPS jamming attacks against South Korea’s northwestern islands, and its continuous launches of ballistic missiles, Seoul has grown increasingly bold. South Korea is likely to call on its Marine Corps’ self-propelled artillery units stationed on Baengnyeong Island and Yeonpyeong Island to conduct artillery drills near the maritime border. It is also expected to conduct ROK Army artillery drills within 5 km of the Military Demarcation Line. 0 

Minister of National Defense Shin Won-sik convened a meeting of the country’s top military leaders on Sunday, where he declared, “We will stand strong to our policy of responding ‘swiftly, strongly, and resolutely’ to any direct provocations from North Korea.” 

While unofficial dialogue channels are cut off, each side is resorting to pointing fingers and vowing revenge.  

“President Yoon Suk-yeol is facing plummeting approval ratings, even losing people from his support base due to his interference in a military investigation of a dead marine. He may be looking to divert attention by stoking tensions with North Korea,” said Cho Seong-ryoul, a military studies professor at Kyungnam University. 

“The government is creating a situation of long-term confrontation without any thought of stepping on the brakes,” he added. 

“The government needs to immediately cease its loudspeaker broadcasts to alleviate tensions and extend an olive branch toward dialogue, for the sake of restoring inter-Korean relations,” said Hong.  

By Park Min-hee, senior staff writer 

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