Balloon warfare on the Korean Peninsula

By Lt. Col. James Zumwalt

North Korea has long been recognized for a product that flows naturally from within its borders and the mouth of its leader, Kim Jong-un. Constantly and falsely claiming how both South Korea and the U.S. conspire to isolate it while repeatedly ignoring its own provocations, the communist dictatorship is the leading producer of B.S. Recently, however, it has packaged the product in a different form, apparently seeking to add it to the very short list of exports it claims.

In late May, over a several day period, Pyongyang launched more than a thousand balloons filled with cow manure and trash, which were then carried by prevailing winds across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), into South Korea, where the payloads were deposited. Finding no other kind of toxic waste, Seoul made it clear the North’s waste campaign was to end.

The motivation for releasing these manure and trash balloon bombs was probably twofold: 1) the North’s discontent over earlier campaigns emanating from South Korean activists to drop leaflets in the North, and 2) to show its displeasure over meetings held in Seoul, along with Japan and China, to discuss the denuclearization of North Korea. Since Seoul lacks a similar nuclear arms program, there is no doubt at whom the talks were aimed.

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Despite Pyongyang desperately needing the few friendly nations it has – mainly China and Russia – it still condemned China for participating in the Seoul summit and for issuing a joint declaration committing to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. It accused the three nations of committing a “grave political provocation” that violates the North’s sovereignty. The summit came days before Pyongyang was scheduled to make a June 4 rocket launch to further enhance its ability to conduct a nuclear attack.

Due to the balloon “bombings,” Seoul decided to suspend a 2018 inter-Korean agreement that had sought to ease DMZ tensions until trust between the two could be restored. Negotiated during a time the South was led by a Neville Chamberlain-esque president, Moon Jae-in, the agreement mandated both sides cease all hostile acts against each other, including propaganda and leafleting campaigns. However, the agreement is silent about privately conducted leafleting campaigns such as those emanating from the South that seek to provide those in the North with the world news they are banned from getting by their government.

Ever since the war between the two Koreas ended in 1953, the North has steadily built up a track record of repeated provocations against the South. Many of these were serious, resulting in deaths on one or both sides. They have included incidents in which Pyongyang violated Seoul’s territorial integrity, sending mini-subs in to drop off armed infiltrators to gather intelligence; kidnapping South Korean citizens and transporting them north; sinking South Korean fishing boats and taking those onboard prisoner; conducting an assassination attempt against the South’s president; sinking a South Korean warship; etc. And there were comparable actions taken against the U.S., including capturing a U.S. intelligence ship – the USS Pueblo in 1968 – still in the North’s possession today (retained as the second-oldest vessel on the U.S. Navy’s active duty ship list) and shooting down a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft.

So far at least, the present tit-for-tat exchange between North and South remains minimal compared to the long list of previous incidents, based on the limited reactions both sides have taken to date. While both nations have already violated the 2018 agreement – the South by resuming frontline aerial surveillance and the North by restoring border guard posts – tensions have not ramped up further.

And, in a very rare mea culpa by the North, it has stated it will not send any more balloon bombs southward. It declared its earlier droppings had left South Koreans with “enough experience of how much unpleasant they feel” but warned Southern activists not to restart their balloon campaign lest it trigger a similar response. Those activists ignored Pyongyang’s warning on June 5, launching more leaflet-filled balloons.

But this statement by the North will be tested as prevailing winds on the Korean Peninsula shifted, triggering South Korea activists to send their leafleting balloons north again. Additionally, a recent defense agreement signed between Pyongyang and Moscow, requiring one to provide aid to the other if attacked, may embolden Kim to take a more aggressive response. North Korea has already been providing Russia with conventional weaponry for its war in Ukraine.

During the 1950-1953 Korean War, the exchange of gunfire claimed the lives of 6 million Koreans. Let us hope that the current confrontation leads to no more than an exchange of balloons.

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