Will pause on trash balloons, loudspeaker broadcasts prove to be calm before the storm?

Posted on : 2024-06-11 16:42 KST Modified on : 2024-06-11 16:42 KST
The uncharacteristic restraint by Seoul to not turn on loudspeakers along the border may have come from a judgment that the direction that North Korea has chosen could be more serious than previously anticipated
Military personnel can be seen at a South Korean military facility near the border with North Korea that once was used for loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts on June 9, 2024. Whether loudspeakers had been reinstalled could not be verified. (Kim Bong-gyu/The Hankyoreh)
Military personnel can be seen at a South Korean military facility near the border with North Korea that once was used for loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts on June 9, 2024. Whether loudspeakers had been reinstalled could not be verified. (Kim Bong-gyu/The Hankyoreh)

Monday proved a temporary respite from the weekslong power posturing between North and South Korea that has entailed the continuous launches of balloons filled with waste by North Korea and launches of balloons filled with anti-North leaflets by groups of North Korean defectors, followed by South Korea resuming its loudspeaker broadcasts across the border. 

Yet many people see this pause in activity not as a sign of change but as the calm before a greater storm. Both parties are blaming the other, and neither seems willing to concede. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff announced on Monday that North Korean soldiers have been observed installing their own loudspeakers near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), the official border between the two Koreas. Meanwhile, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration has reiterated that it has no intention of cracking down on or stopping the defector groups behind the propaganda leaflet launches in the South.

“The ministry’s approach toward the issue of disseminating leaflets and other items to the North remains unchanged. It will consider the intent of the Constitutional Court’s decision to guarantee freedom of expressiσn,” said Unification Ministry spokesperson Koo Byoung-sam at a press conference on Monday.

The response from local governments in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, however, contrasts that of federal authorities. During a comprehensive defense meeting for Seoul attended by representatives from the Capital Defense Command and the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency,  on Monday, Mayor Oh Se-hoon (People Power Party) said, “The citizens of Seoul are simultaneously afflicted by disgust and anxiety caused by North Korea’s waste balloons.”

Kim Dong-yeon, the governor of Gyeonggi Province — which includes border regions that face the highest risk in the event of an inter-Korean military clash — called for a change in the administration’s policy on June 4. 

“The people’s anxiety over conflict can only be allayed when a strong national security posture is accompanied by efforts toward dialogue,” Kim said. 

These statements indicate that the public is growing weary of the snowballing tensions. A group of defectors launched a series of balloons on May 10. North Korea responded with waste balloon launches on May 28-29 and on June 1-2. The South Korean government responded by suspending the entirety of the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement on June 4. Defector groups launched additional balloons on June 6-7. North Korea launched additional waste balloons on June 8-9. South Korea resumed its loudspeaker broadcasts on June 9. North Korea launched more waste balloons on June 9-10. Each retaliation and finger-pointing episode sends the peninsula farther into a vicious cycle. 

Fortunately, the South did not follow up with more loudspeaker broadcasts on Monday. The South Korean military’s “Voice of Freedom” broadcasts were blared across the border for two hours on the previous day, starting at 5 pm. This was the first of such broadcasts since the leaders of the two Koreas signed a joint declaration in Panmunjom on April 27, 2018. Afterward, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs announced that “decisions on additional broadcasts will be made according to North Korea’s behavior.” Yet Pyongyang responded on that very night by launching over 310 more trash balloons. Over 50 of them made it across the MDL and onto South Korean soil. Pyongyang effectively ignored Seoul’s warning, but the Joint Chiefs did not resume the propaganda broadcasts.

Regarding the lack of response, Joint Chiefs spokesman Col. Lee Sung-jun merely replied, “Our military conducts operations according to the strategic and operational situation.” President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has maintained a hard-line stance from the beginning, left for his state visits to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on Monday, making no specific statements on the inter-Korean situation. Chang Ho-jin, Yoon’s national security adviser, and Kim Tae-hyo, the deputy national security adviser, are accompanying the president on his trip. The two figures have effectively led the South Korean responses to North Korean actions during Yoon’s time in office. 

There are conflicting interpretations of the Yoon administration’s uncharacteristic restraint. Lee Sung-jun remarked that the level of threats in the rhetoric of Kim Yo-jong’s statement on Monday was “relatively lower than usual.” Yet a source familiar with inter-Korean affairs told the Hankyoreh that the temporary silence is the Yoon administration taking a respite after judging the movements across the border to be “serious.”

Regarding South Korea’s loudspeaker broadcasts, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un who holds a powerful position in North Korea’s ruling party, released a statement that accused South Korea of sending “political agitation rubbish across the border of the DPRK.”

“If the ROK simultaneously carries out the leaflet scattering and loudspeaker broadcasting provocation over the border,” Kim’s statement said, “it will undoubtedly witness the new counteraction of the DPRK.”

“The ROK will suffer a bitter embarrassment of picking up waste paper without rest and it will be its daily work,” Kim declared. 

The phrase “new counteraction” suggests that North Korea’s next response will somehow be different. 

On May 26, North Korean Vice Defense Minister Kim Kang-il accused the “puppet” South Korean Navy and Coast Guard of repeatedly violating North Korea’s maritime borders, declaring, “We officially warn that we can never tolerate such continued encroachment on our maritime sovereignty and that we may exercise our self-defensive power on or under the water at any moment.” 

Kim’s use of language such as “self-defensive power” is notable, and suggests a certain willingness to respond with force. 

During the Supreme People's Assembly on Jan. 15, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un warned that if South Korea “violates even 0.001 millimeter of our territorial land, air and waters, it will be considered a war provocation.”

“Before we start pointing fingers, the Yoon administration needs to consider the lives and safety of the Korean people first. In that respect, they need to put a stop to the situation now,” said former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun. 

“The Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court have already ruled that the police have the right to stop the balloon launches. The administration needs to let the police do their jobs by stopping additional launches,” Jeong said.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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

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