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[Editorial] Seek ways to defuse tensions

Seoul must step up security and take steps to deal with Pyongyang’s provocations

By Korea Herald

Published : June 11, 2024 - 05:30

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As North Korea continued to send trash-carrying balloons across the border, South Korea resumed the loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts Sunday, signaling escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Although the smelly and noisy campaigns in recent weeks are not deadly clashes, the pace of the tit-for-tat exchanges is fast enough to raise serious security concerns.

Despite Seoul’s repeated warnings, Pyongyang keeps sending waste-loaded balloons. South Korea’s military said Monday that the North sent some 310 balloons filled with scrap paper and plastic late Sunday.

The North launched the trash-carrying balloon campaign on May 28 in the name of responding to anti-Pyongyang leaflets sent by South Korean activists. With the latest batch, it is estimated that the North has so far flown over 1,600 trash-filled balloons to the South.

With some balloons from North Korea resulting in property damage beyond nuisance and GPS jamming leading to disruptions in flight schedules, South Korea ratcheted up its response. President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday endorsed a motion to fully suspend the 2018 inter-Korean tension reduction pact. His approval set the stage for restarting propaganda broadcasts near the border six years after the equipment was removed.

The broadcast featuring K-pop music and other propaganda messages resumed via the loudspeakers Sunday after the presidential National Security Council approved the measure earlier in the day. North Korea is reported to be wary of the powerful effect of the loudspeaker broadcasts, which can be heard 20 to 30 kilometers away.

But concerns are rising over whether the South’s loudspeaker campaign is effective enough to halt the ongoing confrontation with the North.

Particularly worrisome is the warning statement made by Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, on Sunday. “If South Korea chooses to engage in the leaflet-scattering and loudspeaker provocations across the border, without a doubt, they will witness our new response," Kim said, without specifying details of the response.

Kim claimed that the North was planning to stop sending the balloons but decided to send more balloons due to the anti-Pyongyang leaflets sent by North Korean defectors and activities in the South. Kim warned that South Korea would face "daily life in distress of constantly having to pick up waste papers” in return for its leafleting and loudspeaker broadcasts.

The South Korean military did not operate the loudspeakers Monday in consideration of the heightened tensions following Kim’s statement, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned the broadcasts will resume flexibly, depending on the North’s actions.

Some experts and government officials in Seoul speculate that North Korea’s balloon campaign is partly designed to generate a division among liberal and progressive South Korean politicians, a strategy known as “gray-zone provocations.” The ruling People Power Party supports the loudspeaker broadcasts, while the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea claims too strong measures against the North could backfire.

The question is whether Seoul can proactively block Pyongyang from attempting more provocative and violent acts near the border. With the 2018 inter-Korean military agreement now fully suspended, experts warn that Seoul should take the possibility of inter-Korean military clashes near the Military Demarcation Line or the Northern Limit Line more seriously.

In 2015, the two Koreas engaged in a brief exchange of artillery fire over the western part of their border. The reason involved Seoul’s restarted loudspeaker campaign in retaliation for North Korea’s mine attack that had maimed two South Korean soldiers.

At the time, Pyongyang later expressed regret over the land mine attack, which led to the suspension of the loudspeaker broadcasts. But the current situation, especially given North Korea now refers to South Korea as a “primary enemy,” is far more unstable than in the past.

North Korea must stop its provocations including the waste-laden balloon campaign. And the South Korean government has to take all necessary steps -- both stern warnings and tension-reducing measures -- to ensure the safety of people and strengthen overall security and military preparedness.