16.11.2014 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Korean Peninsula: On balloons and leaflets

4534534Inter-Korean relations are under strain once more following the distribution by South Koreans of anti-North Korean leaflets north of the border. The North Koreans constantly demand that this practice is stopped. However, Seoul’s official response to the threats and accusations is that “this country enjoys freedom of speech, and hence we cannot ban non-government organizations from doing what they do. At best, all we can do is admonish them.”

The South Koreans are, of course, being disingenuous here. First, freedom of speech exists for some, but for others there is a law on national security, according to which any praise of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) may lead to criminal prosecution. Secondly, the leaflets are as a rule released from several closed zones, adjacent to the border. And in theory the authorities can simply not allow any activists into the area, physically preventing them from launching these balloons into North Korea. As a general rule, however, the launches have the tacit approval of the authorities, their actions depend on the political climate, and attempts to instil reason into conservatives are only made when the North openly threatens a military response.

There is an interesting history to this problem. For a long time both Korean states waged a psychological war against each other, and the leaflets played a significant role in it. However, during the rule of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun the two sides decided to refrain from mutually hostile propaganda. This related to leaflets as well as agitation using loud-speakers erected on the border.

While there were “pragmatists” or “traditional leftists” among the authorities, leaflets were not a problem. But in 2008 Lee Myung-bak became the president of the Republic of Korea, and representatives of anti-North Korean organizations rallied and resumed their activities. The problem is this: officially the South Korean state is not complicit in launching the leaflets; this is done by activists of quite specific non-government organizations, mainly “Fighters for a Free North Korea”, headed by a defector from the North, Park Sang-hak. His biography is very diverting. Son of a high-ranking intelligence operator, who lived for a long time in Hong Kong under the guise of a businessman, he made a successful career in the propaganda section of the North Korean equivalent of the Communist Youth League, until his father decided towards the end of the 1990s to defect to the South and paid some “intermediaries” to transport his family. Afterwards Park continued the propaganda work but, from a fervent Juchist, became a fervent anti-Juchist.

Other representatives of the leadership are conservatives, bogged down in the “cold war” era and believing that this is the way to start a “colour revolution” in North Korea. And if North Korea’s reaction to the “launching of peaceful balloons” is inadequate, this strain in relations could lead to intervention by the world community, armed conflict or at least to an intensification of the sanctions regime.

Russian-speaking specialist on Korea, Tatyana Gabrusenko, who cannot be reproached for having sympathies with the North Korean regime, is highly critical of this campaign. In her opinion, although the organizers of these actions truly believe that “the North Korean people, after reading the leaflets about the successes of anti-government rallies in Egypt and Libya, will be inspired by their examples and overthrow their own detested government”, the leaflets are aimed at a particular ideal North Korean, existing only in their imagination. As Gabrusenko puts it, “that type of well-fed, starry-eyed dissident, looking as though he’s just stepped out of a Soviet scientific research institute of the seventies, has got little in common with the half-starved and isolated North Korea of today.”

At the end of the day, launching leaflets is more likely to spell disaster for the people picking them up. But it seems like the worse it is for them the better.

At first Lee Myung-bak positioned himself as an “economic president”, and not as a proponent of hardline anti-North Korean policies. Therefore, in the first years of his leadership the authorities tried to restrict the launching of leaflets and called on the “fighters” to cease their distribution because the leaflets in North Korea could have a negative effect on inter-Korean relations, as it would only provoke North Korea. Although it was noted that there was no legal basis for banning the launches, announcements that actions such as these contravene inter-Korean accords, and are particularly undesirable in view of the present situation on the Korean Peninsula, were made by the Minister for the Unification or the chairman of the ruling party. However, these organizations have ignored all criticism, sending, on average, batches of 100,000 leaflets. Furthermore, no one has ever succeeded in persuading ALL organizations, especially religious ones, to stop the releases.

However, the financial crisis of 2008 forced Lee Myung-bak to change his strategy and play the conservative card, and the Cheonan tragedy, which occurred in the spring of 2012, and in which North Korea was accused of sinking the warship, allowed him not only to back out of all earlier inter-Korean agreements but also to start a full-scale propaganda war. On 10 June 2010, 150,000 leaflets and 300 DVDs detailing the sinking of the Cheonan, plus 200 portable radios and 2000 one-dollar bank notes were flown to the North in one batch alone, and immediately after the shooting of the island of Yeonpyeongdo by North Korean artillery, special balloons delivering 400,000 leaflets to the North crossed the border of the two Koreas during the night of the 23/24 November from four points in the Gyeonggi and Gangwon Provinces.

Against the background of the Arab Spring, leaflets describing the revolutions and unrest in the Middle East were sent to North Korea, as well as food, medicine and radios. As one of the initiators of the action, Member of Parliament Son Yon Son, declared, these actions are intended to make North Koreans start thinking about changes.

A curious detail was that each food parcel contained a note stating that it had been sent by the Ministry of Defense of South Korea and was safe for human consumption. In order to dispel any doubt, it was suggested that the Northerners test a portion of the products on the local livestock.

The number of leaflets reached millions, and the launches abated only after Pyongyang announced in April 2011 that if Seoul did not stop releasing balloons with subversive leaflets, North Korea would respond “with a full-scale strike” on those areas from where the propaganda material was being launched.

After these announcements, which were reinforced by the redeployment of troops, the South Koreans, as usual, increased their military preparedness, but at the same time blocked the launching of the leaflets, barring access to the closed zones (such as the Imjingak Park in the city of Paju, Gyeonggi Province), where these events usually took place.

Today the openly conservative Lee Myung-bak has been replaced by the moderate conservative Park Geun-hye, whose inter-Korean politics are not aimed at achieving reunion through force or in the near future. However, traditionally centralist views have placed the president between a rock and a hard place. She is criticized by the left and by the extreme right. For this very reason, she has a lack of loyal staff, whom she could place in key posts to be able to pursue her politics with total independence. This also applies to the leaflets.

Nevertheless, on 4 May 2013, 500 officers of the South Korean Police were forced to block access to a launch site, and on 14 October 2014, after an exchange of fire on the border, about which we wrote earlier, and against the backdrop of a renewed possibility of inter-Korean dialogue, the Ministry of Unification recommended that organizations uniting North Korean defectors refrain from sending propaganda leaflets to the North.

This recommendation has, however, essentially been ignored, but the situation in the autumn of 2014 is characterized by three important factors.

Firstly, the North Koreans have finally started shooting the balloons, in spite of the fact that these shots naturally prompt the Southerners, who are under orders “not to tolerate provocations”, to fire back. The shooting has so far been demonstrative – with no intention of hitting anyone: the Northerners fire at the balloons and the Southerners into the air.

Secondly, the local inhabitants of those areas where the launching takes place have started to speak out and even take action against the launches. They have no wish to fall victim to a response from North Korea. As a result, there have been fights between the activists, trying to launch balloons into North Korea, and the local inhabitants. The latter brought in tractors to block access to the activists. Representatives of organizations calling for cooperation with North Korea broke into a car containing the balloons and cut them up. As reported by Reuters, hundreds of inhabitants blocked the roads, threw eggs at buses carrying activists and demanded that they leave the city. “Actions such as these cause them to use artillery fire on us – our lives are at stake”, said one of the inhabitants. Another one was even more radical: “The damage is huge. How can we work when the military announce a state of emergency every time balloons are launched? If they try to launch any more leaflets we’ll stop them again.”

Also opposed to the launches are businessmen, who have got production going again at the Kaesong industrial complex, but one of the organizers of the leaflet releases, the conservative Jhve u Von, has promised to continue the campaign until “the whole territory of North Korea is covered with leaflets”.

Thirdly, it looks as if the authorities have begun to look for methods of responding to conservatives once and for all, by using the national security law. After all, if launching leaflets provokes tension and provides a reason for the shelling of the South by the North Koreans, this may be deemed to be “action serving the interests of the enemy”. Seoul’s central public prosecution office has opened investigations into Park Sang-hak and his associates. They have been charged with intentionally causing harm to the interests of the state, breaking air traffic regulations and the law on national security. The legal action is being brought by journalist Pek In Jon. According to him, an inter-Korean war is the simplest way for the North to maintain the current political system in the country. On this score, the launching of balloons may be considered as hostile actions. It can be noted that none of the individuals who have tried to block the way for the campaigners has been arrested. But legal action has not yet been set in motion, and the South Korean Minister for Unification, Ryu Gil Jae, confirms the government’s position, according to which the authorities cannot ban the launches. “Citizens have the right to send the leaflets, in accordance with the constitution of the country.” He is supported by a representative of the police: “Our position is basically that the government does not have any legal grounds for blocking the launching of the leaflets by private organizations.”

There have been changes to the contents of the leaflets. At first items were attached to the packs of leaflets that could really have been of help to the average North Korean, while at the same time showing them the advantages of living in the South: socks, toothpaste and tooth brushes, aspirins, ballpoint pens and lighters.

Then the symbol of freedom became the Choco-Pie biscuit, which we have mentioned before, and the largest North Korean bank note of 5000 won. For average North Koreans (particularly those living in the provinces) this is quite a large sum of money, but the number of these bank notes that were sent to the North begs the question: were those fighting with the Pyongyang regime doing what this regime so often accuses the west of doing? I.e. producing and disseminating counterfeit currency. Incidentally, this is indirectly confirmed by rumors that in the battle against the influx of counterfeit notes into North Korea, the design of the 5000 won note has been changed,and in 2009 the government tried to investigate the question of how far it is legal to send notes together with leaflets and whether this is not, for example, tantamount to contraband.

They even intended to ban such activities, on the basis that “sending propaganda leaflets together with money to the North constitutes a breach of the inter-Korean agreements on the cessation of mutual propaganda”, and the Ministry of Unification requested that the public prosecution office conduct an investigation. For if Park Sang-hak and Co themselves declare they are in possession of large sums of North Korean currency, where has it come from (considering that smuggling it carries a prison sentence of up to three years or a fine of 190 mln. won)? However, while the bureaucratic machinery has been turning, the political situation has changed.

How will the situation develop further? We really don’t want another “balloon launch” to lead to a serious exacerbation at the expense of human lives, and a substantial escalation of regional tensions. What we really would like is for the South Korean authorities to find a way of putting a stop to these “do-gooders”. Or to be more precise – for them to have the will and the opportunity to do so. Otherwise the problem of leaflets will hang around for a long time to come, each time providing a good pretext or reason for breaking whatever attempts the North and the South make to move closer to each other.

But as yet there’s not much hope for that. On 1 November 2013 the DPRK Committee for the Peaceful Unification of the Motherland announced that the North had cancelled the inter-Korean negotiations at a top level, promising to take harsh measures in response to activists involved in sending the leaflets. In reply, Park Sang-hak and Co. announced on 3 November that in spite of the threats made against them by the North, they would continue their activities, and that in order to safeguard the inhabitants of the border areas where the balloon launches were carried out, these would be done without any preliminary announcements. Moreover, the representatives of the organizations announced that if they did not stop receiving threats, they would reveal to the whole world “how essentially inhumane North Korea truly is”.

The disclosure of this plan, in connection with South Korea’s support of the American initiative to hand the North Korean case file over to the International Criminal Court will be the subject of a separate article.

Konstantin Asmolov, Cand. Sc. (History), is a senior research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.