North Korea escalates tensions with South Korea

North Korea released waste and poop from balloons over crowded streets, in front of homes, and other public areas throughout South Korea, in Pyongyang’s most recent escalation of tensions with its southern neighbor.

As reported here, the military of South Korea claimed to have found over 260 balloons carrying trash and animal waste, accusing North Korea of carrying out an “inhumane and low-level” act. The balloons appeared to have been dispersed across the country, as local media reported seeing them as far south as Jeolla Province, which is close to the southernmost point of the South Korean mainland.

Images that were made public by the South Korean military revealed a variety of trash objects, some of which were combined with an undisclosed brown substance, lying around on front porches and in the streets, including in Seoul, the country’s capital. The military of South Korea warned in a statement that the acts are against international law and pose a major risk to public safety.

Some South Koreans living in bordering areas received text message notifications cautioning them not to go outside due to things they suspected to be from North Korea. Earlier this week, North Korea pledged to take “tit for tat action” in response to a well-known human rights activist launching anti-North Korea pamphlets and USB flash drives into the country that contained South Korean pop culture content.

Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, called the waste-filled balloons a “genuine ‘gift of sincerity'” and an act of “freedom of expression” on the part of the North Korean people in a sarcastic statement.

The statement seemed to make fun of remarks made by South Korean officials, who have stated that they cannot be held responsible for their failure to prevent specific activists from distributing flyers in the North. Kim claimed that North Korea would send “dozens of times” more balloons into the South in response to similar leaflet launches in the future. The remark was posted to the official Korean Central News Agency.

Balloon wars

For an extended period, the dictatorial regime of North Korea has voiced complaints over South Korean activists who float anti-Pyongyang materials and other goods into the country. The leaflets, which are occasionally bundled with valuables like dollar banknotes or USB flash drives, frequently make fun of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, or the country’s record on human rights.

Park Sang-hak, a prominent human rights activist and defector from North Korea, has come under heavy fire from North Korea, specifically for sending roughly 20 big balloons into the country. It was Park’s first launch following the repeal of a regulation prohibiting such launches by the Constitutional Court of South Korea.

During the administration of former South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who attempted to strengthen ties with North Korea, the law was passed. President Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative who succeeded him, has adopted a more aggressive attitude against the North. Even though it hates the leaflet launches, North Korea sent its own propaganda into the South for decades in revenge.

The host of the NK News Podcast on North Korea-related issues, Jacco Zwetsloot, is headquartered in Seoul and stated that the North’s leaflets were a part of a decades-long campaign to win over South Koreans and foster mistrust toward their government. However, he claimed that the most recent balloon releases containing excrement seem to signal a shift in North Korea’s strategy against the South.

“Once you send poop — or poopy toilet paper or trash — that’s liable to get the people offside rather than on side,” Zwetsloot said. “It could be part of the strategy of finding South Koreans hopelessly tainted and unworthy of being part of future unification plans with the North Korean populace.”

Pyongyang officially abandoned its long-standing objective of Korean reunification earlier this year and declared the South to be its permanent adversary.

Wider tensions

The actions align with North Korea’s growingly belligerent discourse towards the South, prompting several observers to surmise that Kim might be arranging a more serious provocation, potentially involving a cross-border conflict.

It is unclear, meanwhile, if Kim will go beyond his current practice of sporadically waging “gray zone warfare” methods, which are not the same as acts of war. In a particularly risky action, North Korea crossed the border with five small reconnaissance drones in late 2022; one made it as far north as Seoul, the country’s capital.

North Korea announced that its most recent attempt to send a military spy satellite into orbit had failed because the satellite’s rocket exploded soon after takeoff. As part of its attempts to keep an eye on the US forces stationed in the area, North Korea successfully launched its first spy satellite last year and has pledged to launch several more too.

The deputy minister of national defense for North Korea accused the United States and South Korea of “openly intensifying” their air espionage and naval patrol operations close to the inter-Korean border in a statement. According to the statement, the army of North Korea was directed by its “supreme military leadership” “to take offensive action against the enemy’s provocative encroachment.”