The latest since May 28, North Korea has released balloons filled with garbage across the border into South Korea. By June 9, South Korea reported that North Korea once again released balloons carrying garbage to the neighboring country as tensions between the two sides have been escalating. Previously, Pyongyang admitted to releasing tons of garbage to the neighboring country through over 3000 balloons last week. The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff advised the public not to touch the objects North Korea released and to report to nearby military or police agencies, while also warning about the potential damage the balloons could cause. About 90 balloons containing garbage have been found in the past two days.

Why does North Korea act like this?

The Pyongyang government described this as a tit-for-tat response to activists in South Korea sending anti-North Korea leaflets via balloons in the past. North Korea had previously announced a temporary suspension of the garbage balloon campaign after Seoul warned of intolerable countermeasures. North Korean Deputy Minister of Defense Kim Kangin had warned that if North Korea continues to receive such leaflets from South Korea, Pyongyang will continue to retaliate with balloons carrying garbage 100 times the amount of leaflets.

Kim said, we have let South Koreans experience how dirty it is and how much collective effort is needed to clean up the widespread garbage. Despite the threats, South Korean activists and defectors from North Korea continued their leaflet campaigns across the border on June 6 and 7. Earlier, in a commentary on November 8, the Korean Central News Agency warned that conducting psychological warfare, including anti-Pyongyang leaflet campaigns, would be the trigger for the end of South Korea. The stance of the North Korean military is like a rain of artillery shells on South Korea's defense line as well as on the agencies that carried out the leaflet campaigns despite previous reactions from North Korea. Commentator Kim Jun Me wrote in an English article published on KCNA.

In September 2023, the South Korean Constitutional Court rejected a law banning cross-border leaflet campaigns, saying that the law excessively restricts freedom of speech. The Seoul Unified National Security Council, responsible for inter-Korean issues, had issued procedures to repeal the ban on leaflet balloons in all areas of South Korea. For many years, North Koreans escaping to South Korea and many activists have sent balloons containing leaflets to North Korea. In 2014, a shootout occurred at the inter-Korean border when North Korea attempted to shoot down balloons containing anti-Pyongyang leaflets.

In 2020, North Korea also blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in a border town in response to North Koreans escaping to South Korea. Releasing balloons with anti-North Korea leaflets followed the explosion, Kim Jong's sister, Kim Jong Un, threatened to cancel the 2018 military agreement between Seoul and Pyongyang, demanding that South Korea enact laws to prevent leaflet campaigns. The South Korean military announced that more than 700 balloons were released into the country on June 2, containing shredded paper and other types of waste.

In the early hours of June 2, South Korean officials said they would respond to Pyongyang's provocative actions. Experts predict that Seoul may broadcast propaganda along the border in retaliation for measures that South Korea had previously applied since the 2018 summit. According to the South Korean military at a dialogue conference in Singapore on June 2, the South Korean Defense Minister said that Pyongyang's balloon release violated the inter-Korean armistice agreement. Raer news agency reported that an emergency warning was issued in the northern provinces of Kung Sang and Gangwon, as well as some areas in the capital Seoul, South Korea, urging people to report balloons to the police and not to touch the back-and-forth retaliation between the two Koreas taking place at all levels and in all sectors.

Notably, at the Asian Asiad sports event in the women's football match between the North Korean and South Korean teams. The central television station of Pyongyang referred to the opponent as a puppet when reporting from the tournament in Hangzhou, China. The use of the puppet term by KTV instead of the South Korean team's name when reporting on the match seems to be a response to some South Korean reporters calling North Korea North Korea in a press conference after the women's basketball game between the two teams on September 29. At that time, a North Korean official declared we are not North Korea, we are the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. North Korea often refers to South Korea as a puppet of the United States during periods of tense bilateral relations. In a speech before the United Nations General Assembly last month, a North Korean representative used the term puppet government to refer to South Korea when bilateral relations improved.

North-South Korea relations increasingly tense

Pyongyang continues to test weapons in response to joint military exercises between Seoul and Washington. North Korea has repeatedly criticized the exercises as evidence that South Korea and its allies have a hostile attitude and want to change the regime in Pyongyang - considering Pyongyang's reaction overly sensitive when using the puppet term to refer to the South Korean women's football team at Asiad. A South Korean Unification Ministry official declared on October 5 that North Korea often uses the name South Korea in sports matches, but they revealed their lack of confidence by using extremely derogatory and overly sensitive expressions. In a football match, the actions of North Korea were all partly influenced by Seoul's actions in 2018, when it seemed that the two Koreas had reconciled when South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a new military agreement aimed at reducing tensions between the two Koreas. The two sides had a series of talks on a range of proposals such as withdrawing border posts on a trial basis to implement a joint project to search for war remains in the non-military zone and a common security solution at Panmunjom.

Some predict that the two sides may come to an agreement on how to prevent clashes near the North Korean border on the sea. After speaking to the media about the results of President Moon Jae-in's visit to North Korea, Kim Jun emphasized that the summit agreement in Pyongyang would usher in an era of peace and prosperity. Kim Jun particularly noted that the military agreement would help denuclearize the peninsula and achieve sustainable peace. However, things did not go in a positive direction. Although they signed agreements to reduce tensions, develop economic cooperation, each country still fears that the other will back down. Therefore, both South Korea and North Korea remain vigilant through preparations for war.

Specifically, South Korea has continuously conducted military exercises with the United States and allies in the region. In recent years, North Korea has been developing its nuclear strategy. From late 2023 to early 2024, Chairman Kim Jong Un ordered continuous missile tests that caused concern for countries in the region. The South Korean government has also made many statements that are considered tough on North Korea, most recently in the New Year message, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol announced that South Korea and the United States will complete an expanded deterrence system in the first half of this year to prevent North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.

The result of the actions and tough statements of both sides towards each other is that in January, North Korea decided to disband the inter-Korean issue handling agencies, including the agency responsible for North-South economic cooperation. Last year, it also canceled the military agreement signed in 2018 to reduce escalating tensions near the military border, which was signed under the ceasefire agreement in the Korean War 1950 - 1953. Experts predict that Seoul may broadcast propaganda along the border in retaliation, a measure that South Korea stopped applying after the 2018 summit.

For years, North Korea has expressed anger over the balloons released by South Korean activists carrying anti-Pyongyang materials, sometimes accompanied by cash or USB drives containing South Korean TV series. International observers believe that sending balloons containing garbage to South Korea is a sign that Pyongyang is concerned that South Korea's propaganda actions will threaten its control over the North Korean public. A group of South Korean activists called the Fighters for North Korean Freedom said they sent 10 balloons containing USB drives with K-pop music and 200,000 anti-Kim Jong Un leaflets. In response to Pyongyang's garbage-sending actions, carrying out retaliatory actions back and forth perhaps hopes to unify the two Koreas are increasingly distant.

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