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Balloons Not Missiles Raise Tensions Between North and South Korea

New America Media, News Report, Peter Schurmann Posted: Nov 24, 2008

SEOUL -- Late last week, a group of civic activists converged on a town straddling the heavily fortified inter-Korean border. Defying pleas from Seoul and threats from Pyongyang, they let fly about 10 enormous helium balloons filled with propaganda leaflets denouncing the communist regime and its leader, Kim Jong-il.

Bearing statements like, "Your great leader's last days are approaching. The Dictator has collapsed from illness," the leaflets have become an explosive point of contention in inter-Korean relations, particularly at a time when rumors abound on the failing health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who reportedly suffered a stroke in August. In a country where the flow of information is virtually non-existent, the leaflets undermine the state's control over its population.

South Korea on Friday joined in a U.N. resolution condemning North Korea for its human rights abuses. Ironically, just days earlier, Seoul urged a group of civic activists to halt sending anti-communist leaflets across the heavily armed inter-Korean border, a direct line of communication between the two populations that undermines governments on both sides of the divide.

Throughout the years of the Cold War, both North and South Korea sent leaflets denouncing each other's governments as morally and politically bankrupt. Residents in the South were told to submit any leaflets they found with local authorities. Children were rewarded with comics and candies whenever they did so.

Koh Byung-jun, a reporter working in Seoul, says he remembers often finding such leaflets from the North. "From a young age, we'd been taught that conditions were bad in the North," he says, "So I didn't believe what I saw on the leaflets." Koh believes the same is likely true with people living in the North, who've been fed a steady diet of anti-South Korean propaganda for decades.

That wasn't the case, however, for Kang Chol-hwan. An author and journalist with the Chosun Daily in South Korea, Kang spent 10 years in a North Korean gulag before escaping to the South. A supporter of the activists, he recalls in a recent editorial how in 1985, while imprisoned in Yodok detention center, he came across a leaflet sent from South Korea. "My hands and feet trembled as if I were guilty looking at the leaflet with photos of the South Korean president and highly developed Seoul."

Still, while Kang says the leaflet ultimately helped inspire him to defect, given the current state of inter-Korean relations, not all South Koreans support the civic groups' actions.

Kim Sung-jin, who writes on North Korean affairs for a monthly publication in Seoul, says he thinks the groups should stop sending the leaflets. "In lieu of the current state of inter-Korean relations, the civic groups should halt their activities." Kim questions what the civic groups hope to attain by sending the leaflets, and says their efforts ignore the larger picture of inter-Korean reconciliation.

For years now, the group of mostly North Korean defectors has been sending the leaflets without generating much of a stir. But with reports of Kim's poor health and relations between the two Korea's at a 10-year low, the leaflets have suddenly become highly charged.

Last week Pyongyang issued a warning that it would clamp down on border crossings and threatened to cut off communication lines with the South unless Seoul halted the civic groups' activities. More telling, North Korean military officials visited the inter-Korean industrial complex at Kaesong, just north of the DMZ, and asked South Korean companies there how long it would take for them to vacate the premises. The complex is the only remaining symbol of reconciliation efforts between the divided halves.

Inter-Korean relations have deteriorated since the inauguration of conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in February. Lee, a former business executive, reversed his liberal predecessors' policies of engagement by linking South Korean aid to the impoverished North with progress on denuclearization and human rights. In what has become a major source of tension between the two neighbors, Lee also refused to implement agreements reached in 2000 and 2007 between Kim Jong-il and former South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun.

But with the ongoing economic crisis wreaking havoc on South Korean markets, political tensions on the peninsula threaten to scare off potential investors, worsening an already bad situation. In addition, the election victory of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, whose preference for diplomacy triggered speculation that the North may seek to isolate Seoul as it warms up to Washington, has forced Lee to reevaluate his stance. He now finds himself seeking ways to block the leaflets, something activists say violates their right to free speech.

Last week, the spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry, Kim Ho-nyoun, told reporters at a press briefing the groups "must refrain (from sending the leaflets) in consideration of a number of inter-Korean agreements," including one reached in 2004 calling for a halt to propaganda activities by the two sides. Reports emerged in the media here that the government was seeking legal grounds to restrain the groups' activities, which Pyongyang has described as "confrontational."

Shim Sun-ah, who covers political affairs for a local news wire, says she would support the leaflets if what was written on them was true. "The problem," she says, "is that much of what's contained on them is propaganda." In the past, leaflets described lurid details of Kim Jong-il's personal life, or falsely claimed the leader was near death and called on readers to rise up against the state. More recently, balloons have carried radios equipped to receive broadcasts from the South, or leaflets with South Korean currency attached to them.

The civic groups defend their actions, saying the leaflets provide a vital lifeline to North Koreans cut off from the outside world. Responding to Seoul's insistence they halt their activities, and to threats from North Korea, Lee Min-bok of the Christian Defectors Association, which has been spearheading the campaign, said it was a "human rights issue, not a political one." Meanwhile, the groups have vowed to continue their activities.

In this seemingly never-ending conflict, the leaflets have become a direct line of communication between two populations separated by decades of political and cultural animosity. Sadly, rather than bringing them closer together, they could in fact be a catalyst for driving the two halves of this divided peninsula further apart.

Related Articles:

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