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[Editorial] NK provocations

Seoul must weigh various options to tackle Pyongyang’s trash balloons, GPS jamming

By Korea Herald

Published : June 4, 2024 - 05:29

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The South Korean government confronts the tricky task of taking stern measures against North Korea’s latest provocations in the form of trash-filled balloons floated over to the South and at the same time seeking ways to defuse inter-Korean tensions.

The conflicting challenges for Seoul came after Pyongyang sent another batch of balloons carrying waste and propaganda to the South over the weekend, and continued to jam GPS signals near the border since Wednesday.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff said Sunday that it had detected around 720 balloons that floated across the Military Demarcation Line separating the two Koreas and fell in various regions including the western part of Seoul between 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.

The second batch came after North Korea sent around 260 balloons carrying trash to the South on Tuesday and Wednesday, after warning retaliation against anti-Pyongyang leaflets sent by some South Korean activists.

It is deeply regrettable that the North has opted for such reprehensible and dangerous balloon operations. In addition to heightening the level of fears among South Koreans, the trash-filled balloons resulted in actual damage. For instance, the windshield of a car in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, was shattered by several balloons carrying trash. No one was injured but the car owner has nowhere to seek compensation due to the lack of legal terms. North Korea’s balloons also came down on the runway of the Incheon International Airport over the weekend, leading to disruptions of flight schedules.

Some critics here suggest the military should proactively shoot down the trash balloons before falling to the ground, but this could put people living near the border at risk and rapidly escalate inter-Korean conflicts, a development that the North may aim to achieve with the balloon operations. Yet the possibility that such balloons may carry toxic chemicals or bombs in the future cannot be ruled out, posing a serious military and security issue for the South.

The South Korean government held a National Security Council meeting Sunday and vowed to take “unendurable” measures against the North’s “despicable and irrational” dispatching of trash balloons and GPS jamming. The measures may include the resumption of loudspeaker broadcasts along the border. South Korea’s loudspeaker campaign had resumed in 2010, 2015 and 2016 following North Korea's provocations.

About five hours after the loudspeaker option was made public through the presidential office and military sources, North Korea said it would temporarily halt sending trash-filled balloons across the border, reflecting the impact of loudspeakers, though it said it would resume the operation should the South send the leaflets again.

The outlook remains uncertain as a North Korean defectors’ group in the South said Monday it may stop sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets if North Korean leader Kim Jong-un apologizes for the balloons sent to South Korea, a condition that is unlikely to be met by Pyongyang.

It should be noted that the North’s balloon operations are part of its expanding provocations on multiple fronts. The North continues to toy with a spy satellite, the launch attempt for which last Monday was a failure. On Thursday, it fired a barrage of artillery from super-large multiple rocket launchers toward the East Sea. Its GPS jamming attacks near the South’s northwestern border islands also caused disruptions.

The South Korean government may take “unendurable” actions against North Korea’s latest provocations, but must weigh various options and possible scenarios carefully because engaging in a simple power game could backfire in a way that deepens the confrontations on the Korean Peninsula.