[News analysis] N. Korea ramps up anti-South propaganda campaign in response to leaflets

Posted on : 2020-06-23 16:36 KST Modified on : 2020-06-23 16:48 KST
Pyongyang moves to reinstall loudspeakers and invalidate Panmunjom Declaration
A loudspeaker installed near a North Korean guard post in the DMZ in Kaepung County, North Hwanghae Province, in April 2018. (SBS News)
A loudspeaker installed near a North Korean guard post in the DMZ in Kaepung County, North Hwanghae Province, in April 2018. (SBS News)

North Korea’s efforts to restore equipment for loudspeaker broadcasts after previously announcing its intention of scattering propaganda leaflets is being read as another step toward a full-scale propaganda campaign against the South. If South Korean military authorities answer in kind, the situation appears very likely to revert to its perilous state prior to the Panmunjom Declaration on Apr. 27, 2018, when the two sides were engaged in an antagonistic war of words.

According to accounts from military authorities on June 22, evidence of loudspeaker installation by the North Korean military has been simultaneously detected at over 10 locations near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). The efforts appeared to be part of a strategy of responding to the South Korean government’s failure to take action against leaflet launches by local defector groups by launching its own full-scale propaganda campaign against the South.

Regarding the dissemination of leaflets in the South, North Korea stated in the June 22 edition of the Rodong Sinmun that printers and publishers had “turned out 12 million leaflets.”

“Our plan of scattering the leaflets against the enemy is an eruption of the unquenchable anger of all the people and the whole society,” the report said.

“Only when it experiences how painful and how irritating it is to dispose of leaflets and waste, it will shake off its bad habit,” it continued.

“The time for retaliatory punishment is drawing near,” it said, clearly signaling the intent to proceed with the leaflet scattering in the South.

As an expression of extreme displeasure toward the leaflet launches by defector groups, the “tit-for-tat” response is not anything new. Indeed, the Korean People’s Army General Staff named “our people's drive for scattering leaflets [being] guaranteed militarily” as part of its “direction of military action plans” announced on June 17.

Danger of reversing Panmunjom Declaration

What is drawing attention, however, is the detection of unannounced efforts to restore loudspeaker broadcast equipment that was previously taken down according to an agreement between South and North Korea at the time of the Panmunjom Declaration in 2018. While North Korea did declare plans to resume the scattering of leaflets in South Korea, it had not previously mentioned the installation of loudspeakers for propaganda broadcasts to the South. This suggests a strong possibility that the restoration of loudspeakers was not originally part of North Korea’s process of responding to the leaflet launches by South Korean groups. If that is the case, then the loudspeakers’ restoration may well have been a surprise decision made recently as hardliners against Seoul have gained traction within the North Korean power structure.

The measure is also unexpected as it’s inconsistent with Pyongyang’s previous stance, which had been more insistent on the removal of loudspeakers than the South. A South Korean military official explained, “North Korea had responded very sensitively to loudspeakers in the past and demanded several times that they be removed.”

“It’s unusual for it to take the first step in restoring its loudspeakers, knowing full well that South Korea would restore its own if it did that,” the official added. The practice adopted by the South and North Korean militaries in the past has been to answer loudspeakers with loudspeakers according to the “proportionality principle.”

Resumption of broadcasts would pressure S. Korean military to respond

South Korea’s military authorities are reportedly in a quandary over how to respond to the restoration of loudspeakers by their North Korean counterparts. But if the North resumes its broadcasts, South Korea’s military authorities will be hard pressed to stand idly by amid the inevitable rise in pressure from the conservative media and politicians to respond with their own restoration of loudspeakers and the resumption of propaganda broadcasts to the North.

The loudspeakers are making their first reappearance on the front line near the MDL in over two years. As recently as just before the Panmunjom Declaration on Apr. 27, 2018, South Korea reportedly had over 40 loudspeakers in operation, including over 30 fixed and 10 portable units, while North Korea had equipment operating at a similar scale.

“At the time, we had psychological warfare broadcasts to the North twice a day in the morning and afternoon, each lasting one to two hours,” explained a military official.

“Every time we did a loudspeaker broadcast, North Korea would answer with its own broadcast,” the official added.

If the two sides do go ahead with restoring their loudspeakers, this appears very likely to set in motion procedures to invalidate the Panmunjom Declaration altogether. Inter-Korean relations are poised to enter an even more difficult stage with this blow to the only mechanism for mitigating military tensions that had survived after the collapse of the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi in February 2019.

By Park Byong-su, senior staff writer

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

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