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[Lee Byung-jong] Trash balloons and psychological warfare

June 18, 2024 - 05:31 By Korea Herald

After the end of the Cold War, the first president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, confessed that his lifelong fight against Communism and for democracy was inspired by propaganda broadcasting from the US government. As a dissident, poet and playwright, he spent a few hours every night listening to the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe that broadcast news and pop culture from the US and the West. Through those programs, he began to yearn for freedom and democracy.

In fact, many experts believe propaganda broadcasting from the West as part of psychological warfare during the Cold War was instrumental in bringing down the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe. Information about free and opulent Western societies as well as rock and jazz music coming from US short-wave radio led the youth in the region to question and challenge their systems and desire blue jeans and Hollywood, advancing the Cold War’s end.

More than three decades later, those crude and seemingly primitive propaganda tactics are back in style as the new Cold War unfolds. The Voice of America and other state-run broadcasters of the US became less intrusive and provocative, but their counterparts in authoritarian regimes in China and Russia are growing more vocal and propagandistic. RT, formerly Russia Today, works faithfully as the mouthpiece of Putin, blasting the US and the West as imperialists. Additionally, the Kremlin allegedly employs social media to interfere with elections in the West with malicious disinformation and misinformation. China’s state media, such as the China Global Television Network, which have traditionally focused on just promoting and praising their system, are also increasingly becoming confrontational as the US-China conflicts intensify.

Perhaps the most notorious propagandist is North Korea. And it is very creative, in a distasteful manner. In recent days, Pyongyang has sent hundreds of balloons filled with trash, including used toilet paper and cigarette butts, to the South. The rubbish landed in many places, destroying some property, including car windows. Lacking any fatal materials like chemical weapons, the balloons didn’t hurt anyone, but the offense accomplished its mission of causing psychological anxiety among Southerners. Emergency warning text messages from authorities at midnight woke up many and caused a public stir. Some foreigners who were not used to such messages -- the only English text was “Air raid preliminary warning” -- were especially shocked.

In return, Seoul also decided to engage in psychological warfare. After years of hiatus, loudspeaker broadcasting along the demilitarized zone resumed, blasting messages of freedom and hope as well as K-pop music toward the north, targeting nearly 700,000 North Korean soldiers and residents in the border area. Loudspeaker broadcasting seems anachronic in this age of the Internet and social media, but its effects have been proven. Many defectors from the North have confessed that their defection was largely motivated by such broadcasting. For that reason, Pyongyang has been extremely aversive to that. In 2015, the North made a very rare apology for its military provocation that hurt southern soldiers on condition that Seoul halts loudspeaker broadcasting.

There are other countermeasures available to the South. Southern activists advocating the North’s human rights also float their balloons northbound. They carry leaflets denouncing the Pyongyang regime as well as dollar bills and USB sticks filled with K-pop music and drama. This is another Achilles’ heel for the North. Reaching far into the north, these propaganda messages can open the eyes and ears of northerners who are completely cut off from the outside world. In fact, anti-Pyongyang activists sent dozens of leaflet balloons recently in reaction to the North’s rubbish balloons. The balloons carried large placards with such signs as “People’s Enemy Kim Jong-un.” Some also sent hundreds of PET bottles filled with rice and dollar bills along the west coast.

Of course, those loudspeakers and leaflets are bound to invite harsh responses from the North. In the past, Pyongyang sometimes opened fire at those loudspeakers, causing residents on the southern border to panic. In order to protect them and appease the North, the previous Moon Jae-in government enacted a law banning the leaflets. However, the law faced sharp criticism from conservatives in the South who believe it violates the freedom of speech. The international community also joined the opposition. Under the current conservative Yoon Suk Yeol administration, the Constitutional Court finally ruled the leaflet ban unconstitutional last year.

It is true the South’s loudspeakers and leaflets are outdated and raise already high tensions on the Korean peninsula. Particularly those living near the border are alarmed at this new round of tit-for-tat. Indeed, Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of Kim Jong-un, warned of a “crisis of confrontation” after the broadcasts this time. For that reason, such propagandistic practices should not be used recklessly and frequently. Instead, more sophisticated and technologically advanced methods and devices can be developed and deployed to prevent the escalation of tensions. Small FM radio sets smuggled into the North, for example, are known to be highly effective because they can penetrate deeply into the North without much fuss. In any case, Seoul should not rule out the possibility of engaging in old-style psychological warfare because it can work as a very viable bargaining chip. Even the hard-nosed Pyongyang regime doesn’t want to be a victim of such warfare that helped topple the entire Communist bloc.

Lee Byung-jong

Lee Byung-jong is a former Seoul correspondent for Newsweek, the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He now teaches international relations at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.