Seoul to restart anti-Pyongyang loudspeaker broadcasts in retaliation to the North’s trash balloons

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea announced Sunday it would resume anti-North Korean propaganda loudspeaker broadcasts in border areas in retaliation to the North sending over 1000 balloons filled with trash and manure over the last couple of weeks.

The move is certain to anger Pyongyang and potentially prompt it to take retaliatory military steps, and adds to tensions between the war-divided rivals amid a diplomatic stalemate over the North’s nuclear ambitions.

Following an emergency security meeting led by South Korean national security director Chang Ho-jin on Sunday, officials decided to install and begin the loudspeaker broadcasts, Seoul’s presidential office said in a statement.

Chang and other South Korean security officials berated Pyongyang for attempting to cause “anxiety and disruption” in South Korea and stressed that North Korea would be “solely responsible” for any future escalation of tensions between the Koreas.

The North said its campaign came after South Korean activists sent over balloons filled with anti-North Korean leaflets, as well as USB sticks filled with popular South Korean songs and dramas which Pyongyang is extremely sensitive to as it fears it could demoralize front-line troops and residents and eventually weaken leader Kim Jong Un’s grip on power, analysts say.

With the loudspeakers, South Korea may blare anti-Pyongyang broadcasts, K-pop songs and outside news across the rivals’ heavily armed border.

In 2015, when South Korea restarted loudspeaker broadcasts for the first time in 11 years, North Korea fired artillery rounds across the border, prompting South Korea to return fire, according to South Korean officials. No casualties were reported.

Last week, as tensions spiked over the trash-carrying balloons, South Korea also suspended a 2018 tension-easing agreement with North Korea, allowing it to resume propaganda campaigns and possibly restart live-fire military exercises in border areas.

South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik in a meeting with top military commanders called for thorough preparation against the possibility that the North responds to the loudspeaker broadcasts with direct military action, the South Korean Defense Ministry said in a statement. However, the ministry didn’t immediately confirm whether the loudspeaker broadcasts had started as of Sunday afternoon.

North Korea continued to fly hundreds of balloons into South Korea over the weekend, a third such campaign since late May, the South’s military said.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said it detected the North launching around 330 balloons toward the South since Saturday night and about 80 were found in South Korean territory as of Sunday morning. The military said winds were blowing eastward on Saturday night, which possibly caused many balloons to float away from South Korean territory.

The South’s military said the balloons that did land dropped trash, including plastic and paper waste, but no hazardous substances were discovered.

The military, which has mobilized chemical rapid response and explosive clearance units to retrieve the North Korean balloons and materials, alerted the public to beware of falling objects and not to touch balloons found on the ground but report them to police or military authorities.

In North Korea’s previous two rounds of balloon activities, South Korean authorities discovered about 1,000 balloons that were tied to vinyl bags containing manure, cigarette butts, scraps of cloth, waste batteries and waste paper. Some were popped and scattered on roads, residential areas and schools. No highly dangerous materials were found and no major damage has been reported.

The North’s vice defense minister, Kim Kang Il, later said his country would stop the balloon campaign but threatened to resume it if South Korean activists sent leaflets again.

In defiance of the warning, a South Korean civilian group led by North Korean defector Park Sang-hak, said it launched 10 balloons from a border town on Thursday carrying 200,000 anti-North Korean leaflets, USB sticks with K-pop songs and K-dramas, and $1 U.S. bills. South Korean media reported another activist group also flew balloons with 200,000 propaganda leaflets toward North Korea on Friday.

Kim in recent years has waged an intensifying campaign to eliminate South Korean cultural and language influences. In January, Kim declared the North would abandon its longstanding goal of a peaceful unification with the South and rewrite its constitution to cement the South as a permanent enemy. Experts say Kim’s efforts to reinforce the North’s separate identity may be aimed at strengthening the Kim family’s dynastic rule.

North Korea’s balloon campaign is also possibly meant to cause a divide in South Korea over its conservative government’s hard-line approach to North Korea.

Liberal lawmakers, some civic groups and front-line residents in South Korea have called on the government to urge leafleting activists to stop flying balloons to avoid unnecessary clashes with North Korea. But government officials haven’t made such an appeal in line with last year’s constitutional court ruling that struck down a law criminalizing an anti-North Korea leafletting as a violation of free speech.

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