Edward Howell

North Korea’s dirty protest

Kim Jong Un (Credit: Getty images)

North Korea has long been known for its rhetorical braggadocio. Most of the time, the regime’s bluster needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. But on occasion, we should be less quick to dismiss the threats emanating from it and its state-controlled media mouthpieces. 

Earlier this week, North Korea launched over 250 balloons carrying bags of faeces, used bottles, and other waste across the inter-Korean border, subsequently dumping them on South Korean territory. In the words of Kim Yo Jong, the vitriolic sister of Kim Jong Un, the balloons were ‘gifts of sincerity’ to the South. The move is a far cry from North Korea’s usual intimidation tactics of launching missiles, although only several hours afterwards, the North launched a barrage of short-range missiles towards Japan. 

North Korea is not afraid of following through on its word if it wants to

But the sending of balloons across the inter-Korean border is anything but new. In 2016, North Korea infamously sent rubbish-filled balloons southward, signalling its dislike for the then-South Korean president, Park Geun-hye. Activist groups in South Korea, who wish to widen the North Korean population’s access to true information about the outside world, have also done the same. 

This week’s incident came with some forewarning. A few days prior, North Korea’s vice-minister of defence Kim Kang Il lambasted both the joint live-fire drills taking place between US and South Korean air forces, and the launch of balloons carrying South Korean music, K-pop, and anti-North Korean leaflets from South to North Korea by an organisation led by a prominent North Korean defector. In response to what he called an ‘encroachment’ of North Korea’s sovereignty, the minister warned that ‘mounds of wastepaper and filth’ would be scattered all over South Korean territory. Less than days after the statement, those ‘mounds’ appeared, containing so much rubbish that the South Korean army was deployed to aid the clear-up effort. 

For years, the North Korean regime has sought to ban the diffusion of what they call ‘South Korean propaganda’ across the inter-Korean border. These leaflets, which are either in bags attached to the balloons, or planted inside the balloons, have irked Pyongyang so much that the ruling regime even blamed them for spreading Coronavirus into North Korean territory. In addition to the leaflets urging the North Korean people to rise up against the regime, the balloons also carry USB sticks and flash drives. 

The North’s draconian responses to these perceived provocations are not just a way of justifying harsher policies on South Korea. Kim Jong Un’s regime has also been determined to clamp down on what it terms ‘South Korean psychological warfare’ to strengthen its ideological and social grip on its population. What this week’s actions show, however, is that North Korea is not afraid of following through on its word if it wants to.

In June 2020, when North Korea’s borders were closed owing to the pandemic, Kim Yo Jong threatened to destroy the inter-Korean liaison office, a de facto embassy located north of the border of the two Koreas. She warned that if South Korean activist groups continued to send anti-North Korean leaflets into the North, the world would see the ‘tragic scene of the useless North-South liaison office completely collapsed’. Sure enough, North Korea demolished the office. 

Whilst sending anti-regime leaflets was subsequently banned by the then-liberal South Korean government of Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s constitutional court overturned the decision last year. Since 2022, the country has been governed by the conservative administration of President Yoon Suk Yeol since 2022. Nearly four years on from the destruction of the liaison office, and relations between the two Koreas have hardly improved. Domestically, too, Kim Jong Un has sought to strengthen his own culture war with the South by fortifying borders and preventing the flow of information from outside the hermit kingdom. 

That North Korea chose to retaliate against the South in this bizarre way hints at the way relations between the two Koreas could evolve. North Korea would no doubt have been aware of the South Korean government’s recent decision to ban a propaganda video lauding Kim Jong Un, and of the South’s growing military ties with the United States. 

Pyongyang’s actions make more sense within the context of its changing policy towards its southern counterpart. In January this year, Kim Jong Un announced that North Korea would no longer pursue the country’s age-old goal of reunifying the Korean Peninsula under the North’s control. Not only does this policy reflect North Korea’s lack of interest in negotiating with South Korea, but crucially, it underscores the determination and desperation of Kim Jong Un to cement his own legacy and differentiate his rule from that of his father and grandfather. 

This surprising claim paved the way for increasing aggression towards South Korea, days after the North fired artillery at South Korean islands near the disputed maritime border between the two Koreas. Though short of any nuclear war, these lower-level provocations are nothing to laugh about. Now that North Korea has no intention of reunifying peacefully with its southern counterpart, it simply views South Korea as another adversary – together with what it has always called the ‘hostile’ United States. As such, we should expect such provocations to continue. 

Six years ago, Donald Trump attempted to engage in negotiations with Kim Jong Un – which Kim would exploit in exchange for offering negligible concessions. An aide of the then US president was rumoured to have said at the time that, in reference to Kim, Trump was ‘not taking the guy’s shit’. Whatever the contents of the bags attached to the North Korean hot-air balloons – faecal or otherwise – dropped this week the message is clear. Pyongyang will do all it can to disrupt the South Korean government and people. It is vital that the West is prepared for whatever gifts, sincere or not, might arise on its doorstep.