There's been a lot of hot air over the past few days over balloons: propaganda balloons, that is, released from South Korea and aimed at a North Korean public starved of information about the outside world. It's happened before, but this time there was more hot air than usual. The North threatened dire consequences, the South threatened retaliation, and the military on both sides are on high alert, with visitors banned from areas round the DMZ.
Previously the North would insist that the leaflets were a direct act of aggression by the South Korean government, while the South Koreans would counter that, on the contrary, the leafleting was the action of private groups which they were powerless to stop. Now however, as this Daily NK piece argues, the action of South Korean police to try and prevent the release of the balloons has played right into the hands of the North Koreans:
North Korean human rights organizations were prevented by police from carrying out their planned balloon launch at Imjingak on the morning of the 22nd. However, having failed to launch the balloons at 11:30AM, some of the activists headed for Kanghwa Island off the coast of Incheon and, at 6PM, successfully launched the balloons and their cargo of 120,000 leaflets from outside a local museum.
There were obstacles, North Korean threats and the South Korean blockade, but the leaflets finally flew north as planned. “There was a southwest wind blowing at a speed of 3.6m/sec, meaning that the leaflets are likely to have landed in North Hwanghae Province,” one member of the group later reported.
In a closed authoritarian society like North Korea, external information opens the eyes and ears of the people. People who live in free societies, accustomed as they are to money and peace, say they oppose the launching of balloons like these because they make North Korea angry and bring the risk of military attacks.
This absurd perspective ignores the suffering of the starving, repressed North Korean people. The very least we can do is to send them leaflets conveying information, leaflets that can play an important role in opening their eyes to the outside world....
The South Korean government must face serious criticism for its own response to this issue. There have been protests over leafleting before, but the South Korean government’s stance has always been that “we cannot stop the activities of private organizations.” However, this principle was broken yesterday, as it may be again in the future. South Korea blinked, meaning that North Korea is likely to issue a greater military threat next time, meaning that local residents will put more pressure on the South Korean government. It is a vicious circle waiting to begin.
The Lee Myung Bak administration, which used to emphasize a principled approach to North Korea, has let us down, compromised its principles and impeded the activities of private organizations, activities which even the administrations of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun tolerated.