North Korea hits back at balloon activism from South

It threatened Wednesday to shut its border with South Korea, where activists have been launching giant balloons carrying leaflets.

Woo Young-Sik/Reuters
Air mail: Activists in South Korea have been sending leaflets into the North by balloon.

Relations between North and South Korea appear to have suffered their worst reversal in more than a decade with the North's decision Wednesday to close its borders to South Korean commerce and tourism by Dec. 1.

Climaxing months of bitter confrontation, the North Korean military announced its plan to "strictly restrict and cut off" traffic across the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas.

The decision would mean the suspension of activity at the industrial zone of Kaesong, where 35,000 North Koreans work at more than 80 South Korean factories.

The immediate reason appears to have been South Korea's refusal to stop activists from launching balloons that wafted over the North, dropping leaflets denouncing the North Korean regime and exposing the prison system there.

"North Korea regards the balloons as South Korea's effort to force regime change in North Korea," says Paik Hak Soon, senior fellow at the Sejong Institute here.

North Korea put the decision in much broader terms, according to Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency, charging the South with having carried on a "racket of confrontation" that goes "beyond the danger level despite its repeated warnings."

South Korea's unification ministry, responsible for dealings with the North, says it has asked activists to stop the balloon launches, but that it's powerless to stop them.

"It's not illegal in terms of South Korean law," says Ha Tae Keung, president of Open Radio for North Korea, one of several small stations here that broadcasts news and analysis two hours a day into the North.

The leaflets, he says, have been passing on news and information that is "hidden" from North Korea, ranging from the origins of the Korean War to details of the private life of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Several times a week, two small groups of defectors have been launching balloons with mechanisms calibrated to release thousands of leaflets.

Mr. Ha, however, fears the balloon campaign may have an adverse effect if it results in the closure of the Kaesong zone – and a reversal of North-South reconciliation efforts initiated by then-President Kim Dae Jung after his inauguration in 1998.

Mr. Kim's successor, Roh Moo Hyun, built on that policy, but the conservative President Lee has upset North Korea with his more stringent policies. He has called for "verification" of the North's claims to be giving up its nuclear program and for making human rights an issue.

Mr. Paik says the shutdown of the Kaesong complex would be "a real serious blow to inter-Korean relations." "North Korea seems to be feeling enough is enough," he says. "They tend to think that teaching South Korea a lesson will lead to better relations."

Activists, however, say North Korea does not understand the freedom that enables defectors in the South to send the leaflet-bearing balloons. "The North Korean government does not realize that kind of event was by nongovernmental organizations," says Ahn Kyung Hee, an editor at Daily NK, which reports from here on North Korea. "Conditions here are very different from the North."

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