The Leaflet War

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On Saturday 25 October 2014, farmers and residents in the Paju area clashed with anti-North Korea activists who attempted to launch balloons full of propaganda leaflets from the Imjingak Peace Park near the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

Just two weeks earlier, on 10 October, the two Koreas had exchanged gunfire at the border. North Korea fired at balloons containing anti-North Korean propaganda leaflets, and some of the shells from a North Korean anti-aircraft gun fell in the border town of Yeoncheon, stirring fear of attacks and a potential war. The exchange of fire came amid diplomatic negotiations over a possible talk, after a surprise visit by high-ranking North Korean officials to the closing ceremony of the 2014 Incheon Asian Games on 4 October.

North Korean officials allegedly demanded during a subsequent secret inter-Korean meeting at Panmunjeon on 14 October that the South step in and stop the leafleting activists. After much debate at the National Assembly, however, the Ministry of Unification concluded that there is no legal ground for the South Korean government to intervene. After all, South Korea is a free country: Everyone can do whatever pleases them.

Anti-North Korea leaflet launches have been around for about 10 years. They are ostensibly launched by groups comprising of North Korean defectors and right-wing anti-North activists. Such balloons can contain propaganda leaflets, sweets, Korean drama DVDs and US dollar bills. The underlying idea is to awaken the North Korean populace to the truth about their circumstance and inspire them to stage a revolt that would overthrow the regime. Lee Min-bok is known to be the pioneer of the craft, while Park Sang-hak, the head of Fighters for a Free North Korea, has frequently been profiled in the international media for his role in the initiative. And the newest addition to the growing enterprise is Choi Woo-won, a philosophy professor at Busan University. It was the leaflets from Choi’s group that caused the exchange of fire at the border last month.

Despite the controversy, jitters, and escalating tensions, the anti-North activists are adamant that they will proceed no matter the cost. But at this particular event on 25 October, they were met at the entrance to Imjingak by other South Koreans who oppose such action. The opponents of the balloon launch included local residents, farmers, businessmen who operate factories at the Gaesong Industrial Complex, and left-leaning activists.

For some, launching balloons full of leaflets is only an exercise in their freedom of speech. But for others, opposing the project is a matter of livelihood and even survival. Eggs were hurled, water sprayed, and bottles pelted.Profanities flew and crowds jostled, making for an intense illustration of the ideological divide plaguing South Korea. It was total chaos.

The day eventually turned farcical and anti-climactic. Paju residents and liberal activists doggedly fought and pestered the anti-North Korea faction from beginning to end. Tractors were lined up at the parking lot to form a barricade, and ultimately no balloon saw the light of the day in Paju, as the leaflets and plastic bags used to make balloons were hijacked by protesting university students in the very early stage of the standoff. After hours of scuffle and chase, the balloon launchers gave up and left, but one group, led by Park Sang-hak, succeeded in launching just one balloon containing 20,000 leaflets from the island of Ganghwa-do after sundown.

Meanwhile, North Korea cancelled the high-level talk scheduled for 30 October, citing the launch as the cause, and the South Korean Ministry of Unification retorted sharply that it was absurd of the North to use the leaflet launch as an excuse for cancellation.

There is no real war as yet, but the leaflet war has only just begun.

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