Bizarre psychological warfare using K-pop and trash balloons raises tensions between the 2 Koreas

Bizarre psychological warfare using K-pop and trash balloons raises tensions between the 2 Koreas

Bizarre Psychological Warfare Using K-pop and Trash Balloons Raises Tensions Between the 2 Koreas

SEOUL, South Korea — The border between North and South Korea has become a stage for an unusual form of psychological warfare. South Korean loudspeakers blast BTS hits, while North Korean balloons carry trash, including manure and cigarette butts. This bizarre Cold War-style standoff continues daily, with no serious talks between the two nations for years.

“Both Koreas are trying to pressure and deter each other with politically symbolic actions,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “Neither side wants to back down, and tensions could escalate to unintended conflict.”

On Sunday, South Korea redeployed its massive loudspeakers along the border for the first time in six years, resuming anti-Pyongyang broadcasts. These broadcasts included BTS’s mega-hits like “Butter” and “Dynamite,” weather forecasts, news on Samsung, and criticism of North Korea’s missile program and crackdown on foreign media.

South Korean officials say these broadcasts were a response to North Korea’s recent balloon launches, which dumped trash into South Korea. North Korea claims its balloon campaign was a reaction to South Korean activists sending political leaflets critical of Kim Jong Un across the border.

North Korea views South Korean broadcasts and leafleting as grave provocations, as it restricts access to foreign news for most of its 26 million people. South Korean officials report that North Korea has reinstalled its own loudspeakers near the border, but they have not been activated yet. In the past, North Korean broadcasts focused on praising its system and criticizing South Korea.

Balloon activities and loudspeaker broadcasts were part of the psychological warfare that both Koreas agreed to halt in 2018. During the Cold War, South Korea used towering electronic billboards, while North Korea set up signboards with messages like “Let’s Establish a Confederate Nation!”

South Korean officials claim their loudspeaker broadcasts can travel about 10 kilometers during the day and 24 kilometers at night. They say past North Korean broadcasts were not clearly audible in South Korean areas. Some North Korean soldiers who defected to South Korea enjoyed the broadcasts, which included pop songs and accurate weather forecasts.

In 2015, when South Korea restarted loudspeaker broadcasts after 11 years, North Korea fired artillery rounds across the border, prompting South Korea to return fire. No casualties were reported.

Experts and defectors say K-pop and other South Korean pop culture products have become a challenge to North Korea’s leadership. Kim Jong Un has intensified efforts to eliminate South Korean pop culture and language to strengthen his family’s rule. The playlists of South Korean broadcasts in 2016 included songs by IU, whose soft voice was believed to demoralize North Korean soldiers.

North Korea was more tolerant of South Korean pop culture when relations were warmer. In 2018, during a brief period of rapprochement, North Korea allowed some of South Korea’s biggest pop stars to perform in Pyongyang. South Korean TV footage showed that the North Korean audience enjoyed classic ballads but was less enthusiastic about Red Velvet, a K-pop girl group known for their playful vocals and choreography. Kim Jong Un reportedly called the concert a “gift to Pyongyang citizens.”

There are concerns that this psychological warfare could lead to direct military clashes. Both Koreas have made it clear that they are no longer bound by their 2018 tension-reduction agreements. Diplomacy between the two countries has stalled since U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks collapsed in 2019, making it difficult to set up talks to de-escalate tensions.

“South Korea has clear advantages in information operations and conventional military capabilities, but it also has more to lose in a physical clash,” said Easley. “While the Kim regime is vulnerable to outside information, its self-proclaimed nuclear status may give it overconfidence in its ability to coerce.”

North Korea could retaliate in ways that avoid direct counterattacks, using “gray zone” tactics where its involvement isn’t immediately confirmed, said Wang Son-taek, a professor at Seoul’s Sogang University. The South Korean loudspeaker broadcasts reportedly lasted two hours on Sunday, and the speakers were not turned on again on Monday and Tuesday. The South Korean military stated it is ready to launch immediate, strong retaliation if attacked.

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