Walk around Seoul and the chances are you’ll hear catchy K-pop tunes playing out of various shops, bars and restaurants. But did you know that North Korean soldiers may be humming along to the same songs in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) — the inter-Korean frontier, also known as the most heavily fortified border on earth?
Since 1962, South Korea has been ‘shouting’ at North Korea with towers of multiple loudspeakers like this one.
Their target audience are North Korean soldiers stationed in the DMZ and civilians living nearby. Sound from the speakers is known to reach up to 20 km to the north, a range that encompasses Kaesong, the location of North and South Korea’s now-defunct joint Industrial Complex.
According to South Korean news reports, the country’s loudspeaker propaganda is usually more informative that provocative. Instead of winding up North Koreans with announcements disparaging their regime, South Korea airs simple but accurate sound bites, such as weather reports. This is aimed at establishing credibility without offending North Koreans, who could react to inflammatory comments against their nation with an even more unified stance against the South.
News about North Korean domestic issues that may have been withheld from the North Korean public by Pyongyang — such as the deadly 2004 explosion at Ryongchon Train Station — are broadcast, too. South Korea also entices its target audience with details of how to defect and settle in the South, including generous government subsidies, according to Yonhap News Agency. After a young North Korean soldier sprinted across the border last November, risking his life, the South used its loudspeakers to announce his defection, reportedly highlighting his state of malnourishment to imply that the North Korean military was issuing insufficient rations.
One defector claimed on a South Korean TV show that the South adjusted the language in its cross-border announcements to avoid any misunderstandings. (While the language spoken in the North and South remains mutually comprehensible overall, there are discrepancies as a result of 60 years of national division.)
The psychological war gets more subtle — but possibly more effective — once pop songs are involved. In the aforementioned TV show, another defector said that during his 10-year mandatory military service, he’d shed tears at the sentimental lyrics of South Korean pop songs pumped from the loudspeakers at night, while he was on sentry duty.
After 42 years of cajoling North Korean civilians and soldiers, the loudspeaker propaganda was halted from June 2004 onward, pursuant to a deal negotiated under a center-left South Korean government. But in August 2015, after two of its soldiers were severely injured by North Korean-planted mines in the DMZ, South Korea resumed its blasting of news, K-pop songs and criticism of North Korea through the speakers.
The North Korean regime reacts sensitively to this propaganda tactic. When the South attempted to resume the broadcasts in 2010, after the North’s bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in the South, the North threatened to shoot the speakers.
The North Korean regime’s hostile response to the South’s loudspeaker propaganda may indicate that it finds it threatening. Needless to say, the North also engages in the sonic war, using its own speakers. But it may have found an even more effective use for them. In 2016, the South discovered that the North was directing its speakers towards its own people, presumably to cancel out the sound from the South’s speakers.
Meanwhile, the two Koreas also use flyers known as ppira, as another means of psychological warfare.
It is unclear whether a sudden detente between the two sides would put a halt to the loudspeaker propaganda. For one, it was the Roh Moo-hyun administration in 2004 that suspended the long-running propaganda war. Current president Moon Jae-in, a close confidant of the late leader Roh, may consider following suit.
But since entering office, Moon, while keeping the door open for talks with the North, has taken a relatively stern stance, pledging to enforce stiffer sanctions if the North continues its arms testing. Even after the recent ostensible thawing of the inter-Korean relations, Moon has kept reiterating his assertion that the Korean Peninsula should be free of nuclear weapons, and the North has made clear it has no intentions of giving them up.
So the future of loudspeakers in the DMZ still remains unknown.
Jieun Choi authored this article.
Cover image: Loudspeakers are the choice of weapon for psychological warfare between South and North Korea. (Source: Yonhap News TV on YouTube)