Korean Leaflet War Escalates

South Korea warns of damaged ties with North Korea if activists persist in launching propaganda leaflets across the border.

Leaflets 305 South Korean activists in Paju launch balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets, Dec. 3, 2008.
AFP Photo
SEOUL—Activists in South Korea who have been firing off thousands of propaganda leaflets across the border to the Stalinist North have been warned against escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The South Korean government also said a growing ideological divide in South Korea over anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets was "undesirable" and might give a "wrong message" to Pyongyang.

"The dispute between civic groups over the leaflets could send a wrong message to North Korea and thus is undesirable," Kim Ho-nyeon, spokesman for the Unification Ministry dealing with North Korea, told a news briefing.

Conservatives in the South say leafleting is an effective means of helping North Koreans see the truth in a country where the use of radio, television, and Internet are severely limited.

Soldiers have been dispatched to areas where the leaflets have landed, and they’re under orders to collect leaflets in lieu of their morning exercise."
Source in China

But liberals believe it will only enrage North Korea and result in worsening cross-border relations. Some left-leaning groups want to send in their own leaflets to make sure their view is also represented.

Leaflets everywhere

Conservative groups sending leaflets into North Korea held a news conference Dec. 5 after a meeting with ruling Grand National Party (GNP) representative Park Hui Tae. Park asked the groups to exercise restraint, refrain for a time from sending balloon leaflets, and assess North Korea’s reaction.

Sources in China say the North Korean authorities have mobilized the military to prevent people from coming in contact with the leaflets.

"Many leaflets landed by the seashore. Especially in Changyon or Yongyon, where the North Korean 4th Army Corps is stationed, there’s a lot of commotion because of the leaflets," one source said.

"Soldiers have been dispatched to areas where the leaflets have landed, and they’re under orders to collect leaflets in lieu of their morning exercise. Even people whose job is to monitor food distribution in the fall have been ordered to collect leaflets," the source said.

According to the same source, leaflets are scattered everywhere—on hilltops, in ricefields, and on collective farms. In addition to food distribution monitors and soldiers, police officers have also been detailed to collect leaflets.

Personality cult

Defector Lee Min-bok of the Christian North Korean Coalition, which has been sending leaflets to the North for more than five years, said the leaflets were the only way to attack the information blackout imposed by Workers' Party leader Kim Jong Il on his people.

"The two characteristics of the North Korean regime are its isolation and its Dear Leader Kim Jong Il's personality cult. The leaflets are the only available means to break North Korea’s isolation and bring down that personality cult," Lee said.

"There are three components of the North Korean regime that North Korea will never give up: its isolation, the idolization of its leader as a deity, and nuclear weapons. If the door opens, they will no longer be able to hold on to these elements," he added.

The reason North Korean authorities are so sensitive about the leaflets...is that they directly criticize Kim Jong Il and target the area of Hwang Hae province where North Korea’s elite military units are concentrated."
Kang Chul-han, Committee for Democratization of North Korea

"North Korea has protested over leaflets to the South Korean government 22 times since 2005. This is great evidence that the North takes the leaflets seriously enough that they believe they might lead to the collapse of the regime."

Kang Chul-han, vice president of the Committee for Democratization of North Korea, said most North Koreans had relied on overseas information in recent years, since former president Kim Dae-jung's administration, from 1998-2003, reduced broadcasts to North Korea as part of its so-called sunshine policy of engagement with the North.

"The reason North Korean authorities are so sensitive about the leaflets sent by South Korean groups is that they directly criticize Kim Jong Il and target the area of Hwang Hae province [just north of Seoul] where North Korea’s elite military units are concentrated," Kang said.

"As North Korea was facing large-scale famine in the late 1990s, the time was ripe and circumstances would have been favorable for sending leaflets or foreign broadcasting into North Korea," Kang said. "However, after the Kim Dae-jung administration assumed power in 1998, all means of transmitting information to North Korea, including leaflets and broadcasting, were reduced or weakened."

"The one outside station that North Koreans were listening to the most during the Kim Dae-jung administration was South Korea’s KBS, and that station was seriously leaning to the left. Beginning in 1997, all broadcasts criticizing North Korea were either discontinued or modified, and that's how more and more left-leaning broadcasts from the South were reaching into North Korea," Kang said.

The most visible symbol of Kim's Dae-jung's sunshine policy is the Kaesong Industrial Complex, just 60 kms (38 miles) from Seoul, where nearly 34,000 North Korean workers earn some U.S. $65 monthly from 88 South Korean firms.

The current South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, regards his predecessor's policy as a failure because it didn't prevent Pyongyang from acquiring, and testing, nuclear weapons.

Defending their views

"The reason we are sending these leaflets to the North is because we do not have any other means by which to counter the leaflet-sending by conservative groups," said Kim Young-man, leader of a left-leaning group.

He described the general tone of his group's leaflets as critical of conservative groups in the South that are sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets.

Some defectors said leafleters lack understanding of the North, while others said the burgeoning leaflet war is a good thing.

"We absolutely welcome this move because, based on the explanation, the leaflets tell North Koreans about the superiority of a free democratic society and show how people in the South can express different opinions," said defector Cha Sung-ju, executive director of the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea.

Activists from groups who regularly send balloons carrying flyers to North Korea clashed Tuesday with tens of opponents from liberal groups protesting the campaign as they attempted to launch a new batch of balloons at a port near the western sea border between the two Koreas.

One activist was hospitalized after being hit on the head with a wrench wielded by a protester.

Earlier this week, North Korea took a series of measures to retaliate for what it called Seoul's confrontational policy.

These ranged from suspending cross-border rail services and sightseeing tours to the ancient North Korean city of Kaesong, to limiting traffic across the border with the South.

Original reporting in Korean by JW Noh and Jung Young. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Acting RFA Korean service director: Francis Huh. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.
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