Talking Trash

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The French first used balloons in war for reconnaissance during the battles that erupted after the French Revolution in the late 18th century. Now the inflatable devices have become a mainstay of the psychological warfare underscoring the tensions between North and South Korea.

North Korea, for example, recently flew more than 1,000 balloons carrying bundles of garbage and manure – many of which flew back into North Korea – into South Korea in retaliation for South Korea using loudspeakers to blast anti-North Korean propaganda over the border, reported CNN. The messages sought to inform North Koreans about their country’s problems – zero civil rights, autocratic leadership, food insecurity, etcetera – while highlighting the freedoms and prosperity that South Koreans enjoy.

As Reuters explained, South Koreans have also been sending balloons into North Korea. One group of activists called “The Committee for Reform and Opening up of Joson” – Joson being a term for North Korea – has been sending machines on balloons that dispense leaflets and Bibles and blast audio messages criticizing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including calling him a pig.

Other groups have sent balloons carrying USB sticks loaded with K-pop songs and K-dramas, which are a hit worldwide.

The tit-for-tat balloon battles have escalated since South Korea abandoned a 2018 deal to stop the broadcasts, as well as military exercises, across the border, sparking fears that tensions between the two countries might boil over into another hot zone, as war rages in Ukraine and the Middle East and many fear China might attempt to invade Taiwan. Late last year, Kim ended his country’s official policy of seeking peaceful reunification with the South.

South Korean troops, for instance, recently fired warning shots at North Korean forces that mistakenly crossed the border, noted the BBC. North Korea has been beefing up its defenses in the demilitarized zone that runs between the two countries on the Korean peninsula, too.

These developments are especially scary because North Korea has revamped its nuclear deterrent in recent years, wrote World Politics Review. The so-called Hermit Kingdom can likely hit the continental US with nukes, while the country’s military has also diversified its delivery systems, making them hard to knock out in the event of war.

Analysts don’t see the purpose of the South Korean balloons. Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul​, said they were ineffectual in terms of improving the lot of suffering North Koreans – while the trash-filled balloons presented a real danger to commercial jetliners in South Korean airspace, according to the New York Times.

An analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) notes the more dangerous development has been the deepening of Russian-North Korean relations, because it could enhance North Korea’s WMD and conventional forces and embolden Kim to act more aggressively toward South Korea, especially with the lack of Chinese interest in the issue.

“After decades of working with Washington to control Kim and restrain his nuclear program,” wrote Sue Mi Terry of the Council on Foreign Relations in Foreign Affairs magazine, “Beijing and Moscow have decided to embrace North Korea’s leader, allowing him to act with newfound impunity.”

Meanwhile, North Korea has a history of increasing its provocations during US election cycles, with the CSIS noting that it staged more than four times as many weapons tests than in other years. Analysts say what North Korea does this year will show how emboldened Kim really is.

Still, the most compelling reason for Kim to refrain from launching an attack that would lead to war is internal, according to an analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit. “The biggest deterrent against North Korea launching a war is the potentially devastating consequences for Kim Jong‑un’s regime … (it) could create opportunities for dissidents and opportunists within the North Korean elite to attempt a coup.”

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