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[Newsmaker] Anti-N.K. leaflets: Double-edged sword

Steered by North Korean defectors and activists, civic groups and their anti-Pyongyang leaflets have long goaded the Kim regime into fury at what it calls an act of hostility.

The two Koreas traded fire Friday after the North began shooting heavy machine guns, apparently aiming at balloons launched by two organizations which were filled with flyers denouncing the communist regime, $1 bills, mini radios and other items. 
A group of North Korean defectors living in South Korea sends balloons carrying anti-North Korean leaflets in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, Friday. (Yonhap)
A group of North Korean defectors living in South Korea sends balloons carrying anti-North Korean leaflets in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, Friday. (Yonhap)

No casualties were reported, but a number of high-caliber rounds were found not only near South Korean border posts but also civilian residential districts.

The incident marked a rare military engagement across the heavily militarized land border, though the disputed maritime frontier has seen rounds of skirmishes in the past.

It also instantly dampened budding hopes for a thaw in cross-border relations, following a surprise visit on Oct. 4 to the South by three top North Korean officials ― Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yang-gon ― primarily to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games.

During their one-day stay, they delivered leader Kim Jong-un’s “warm greetings” to President Park Geun-hye, met with Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, held talks with their Seoul counterparts and agreed to reopen high-level dialogue in late October or early November.

Yet Pyongyang’s state media on Saturday said the planned meeting has “practically gone down the drain,” blaming Seoul for letting cross-border ties go “back to square one for collapse” by not stopping the activists’ plans.

“The leaflet-spraying is an unacceptable political provocation against us and marks a frantic effort in the throes of death to block the rare mood for improved inter-Korean relations driven by the trip to Incheon by our director of the General Political Bureau (of the Korean People’s Army),” the official Korean Central News Agency said, referring to Hwang.

“This situation clearly shows that the leaflet frenzy could spill over into heated war where fire is exchanged.”

With the hard-line campaigners vowing to carry on with their crusade, the dilemma is deepening for Seoul officials over how to balance the need to maintain stable inter-Korean ties and ensure the citizens’ right to freedom of assembly and association.

Debate has been fierce over whether the government should restrict the balloons launches or other moves that may rile Pyongyang.

While civic groups play a crucial public diplomacy role, taking measures that go beyond the government’s options in engaging with the reclusive North, their campaigns at times help escalate tension and thus run counter to Seoul’s policy goals.

Critics also say that though many organizations carry out their movements in private, some intentionally pick politically sensitive times to draw media attention, boost their profile and ultimately raise more funds.

But Seoul remains pessimistic about imposing any ban, citing the lack of logic.

For citizens in border towns, the drives means greater safety worries.

After their appeal to the government went unanswered, Yeoncheon County residents took to the streets on Saturday, using trucks and tractors to block access to the venue where members of the Campaign for Helping North Koreans in Direct Way were scheduled to release more balloons.

“We sought to keep away the gas trucks to fill up the balloons,” village leader Lim Jae-kwan was quoted as telling reporters. “We will set out to interrupt leaflet launches now that we have directly sustained damage from them.”

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the private Sejong Institute, said despite its stringent rhetoric, Pyongyang seems to remain open for a fresh round of high-level talks, but Seoul needs to craft measures to control leaflet releases so as to prevent civilian casualties and any further worsening of cross-border tension.

“Now that it has become clear that the leaflet-flying cannot stand together with the administration’s current North Korea policy, the government and parliament will have to formulate an institutional device to regulate future launches and escape the situation where inter-Korean dialogue is impossible,” he said in a commentary.

“Unless sending balloons is the only way to ensure North Koreans’ right to know, the civic groups should also find other tools that could be compatible with national security and the government’s North Korea strategies.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)
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