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[Wang Son-taek] Trash balloons vs. leaflet balloons

June 6, 2024 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

North Korea sent over around a thousand balloons filled with trash, including excrement, to South Korea, scattering them across the country. The garbage itself is filthy, but the base nature of North Korea's actions is even more despicable. This incident is also a disgraceful and embarrassing display of the current state of inter-Korean relations. Why did this humiliating situation occur? How should we respond?

A lot of angry South Koreans might think the answer should be to accuse North Korea of their barbaric provocation and take retaliatory actions that North Korea cannot cope with. However, the issue is more complex than that. North Korea claims it was a countermeasure against the anti-North Korea leaflets by balloons sent from the South. Other countries watching this quarrel of balloons may see it as mudslinging between the two Koreas. Without a well-tuned response, South Korea could be seen as an incompetent nation covered in filth and North Korea as a low-class bully. We need to analyze the cause and background of the incident and clarify the concepts and discourse with it to find sophisticated measures.

First, it must be made clear that North Korea's act of sending trash-filled balloons is a deplorable provocation. The North may believe it has succeeded in despising South Korea and exacerbating internal divisions in Seoul. They might see it as a victory against President Yoon Suk Yeol's hard-line policy toward the North. However, South Korean citizens will likely harbor extreme disgust toward the North. This could increase the level of hatred toward North Korea and amplify calls for even tougher responses.

It's crucial to remember that such actions highlight North Korea's vile nature to the international community. While North Korea may enjoy throwing filth at the South, the international community will likely remember North Korea for its disgusting image. So, North Korea should stop sending the trash. It's somewhat fortunate that North Korea has stated conditions under which it would stop it.

Second, South Korea should also stop sending anti-North Korea leaflets via balloons. North Korea claims they are retaliating against these leaflets. The leaflets are sent based on the belief that North Koreans need to be informed about the true nature of the wicked regime of the North. Civil organizations from South Korea and the US are known to collaborate in sending these leaflets. They argue it's a matter of freedom of expression, and South Korea's Constitutional Court has supported this stance. However, this argument ignores the fact that South and North Korea are technically still at war.

Leaflet drops between two warring nations are part of psychological warfare, which military authorities should manage. Civilians do not have critical information about warfare or know the best option for the operation. Therefore, civilians launching leaflet balloons over the demilitarized zone should not be dealt with as a matter of freedom of expression but should be reviewed strategically as part of psychological operations. Even applying the freedom of expression principle, if South Korea justifies sending leaflet balloons, the same standard would have to apply to North Korea's balloons, whatever the contents. Some could say that the principle should not apply to both sides because the South sent good things, and the North sent terrible things. However, that kind of one-sided logic cannot be welcomed in a liberal democratic world. The international community views South Korea as a full-fledged democratic country and North Korea as a totalitarian dictatorship.

Third, in response to North Korea's trash balloons, South Korea declared the suspension of military agreements. The agreement was adopted during the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in September 2018. However, in November 2023, South Korea declared a provision invalid, and North Korea promptly announced the entire agreement null and void, effectively rendering it defunct. The suspension of the agreement may seem like a plausible countermeasure given the animosity in the South toward the North. It could be a preliminary step for reactivating loudspeakers along the demilitarized zone. However, invalidating the military agreements would heighten military tensions on the Korean Peninsula, which would significantly lose South Korea's national interests. It would signal to the international community that both Koreas share responsibility for heightened tensions, potentially inviting intervention from outside powers, including the US and China.

If North Korea continues sending filth balloons and South Korea responds in kind, the next step could be accidental clashes or escalations of military tension. Some in South Korea are calling for a harsh response, including massive retaliation if North Korea provokes it physically and vividly. However, North Korea is unlikely to provoke in a way that invites a straightforward counterattack. They may use "gray zone" tactics, where North Korea's involvement is suspected but not confirmed, obscuring large-scale retaliation. Such actions require a careful, sophisticated response because they are acts of not just military but also psychological warfare. If South Korea does not get sophisticated plans against the North, it could lead to tragedies like the sinking of the naval ship, Cheonan, or the Yeonpyeong Island shelling, where the South could not take a proper amount of retaliation.

While concrete efforts to respond to North Korea's filth balloons are necessary, emotional reactions must be avoided. In diplomacy and national security, maintaining composure and rationality until the last moment and persistently striving for the best outcomes is the key to victory. Declaring the military agreement null and void as a tough response is a kind of emotional reaction. Restarting loudspeaker broadcasts along the DMZ would be another one. Emotional responses only bring losses to South Korea without punishing North Korea. Instead, it weakens our defense posture domestically and invites powerful nations like the US and Chinese intervention internationally, narrowing our diplomatic space.

If the South Korean government equates strong, decisive responses with emotional, simplistic reactions, this country risks national misfortune, and the administration could face an unmanageable catastrophe.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is an adjunct professor at Sogang University. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.