SEOUL – The irony wasn’t lost on Lee Min Bok when he spotted propaganda leaflets fluttering down in front of his home just south of the border dividing the Korean peninsula: it was airborne pamphlets flown the other way that convinced him to defect from the north more than two decades ago.
The leaflets that dropped into Lee’s yard at the weekend are among nearly a million floated south by the Pyongyang regime as part of a psychological war that has intensified since North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test early this month.
One had a pair of cartoons of a near-naked South Korean President Park Geun-hye smooching with U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Another juxtaposed Park’s portrait with a skull, calling her past proposals for improved ties with North Korea the “mad grumbles of a half corpse.”
“These leaflets show how desperate the Kim Jong Un regime is,” said Lee, 58, a former North Korean agricultural researcher. “This is part of his defense, not offense.”
Lee said the pamphlets that prompted him to escape in 1990 explained that the regime in Pyongyang had lied in teaching that South Korea provoked the Korean War. He has since dedicated himself to sending the same sort of rhetoric north of the border to urge commoners to rise against the Kim dynasty. He lives as close as he can to the demilitarized zone to make this work easier.
North Korea goes to all lengths to defend the cult of personality around the Kim family and project absolute control. The reliance on leaflets in response to propaganda over the border from the south could be a sign that leader Kim Jong Un is exercising some restraint. In August, similar South Korean broadcasts spurred him to put his 1.2 million troops on a war footing.
Seoul restarted propaganda broadcasts from about 10 sites along the demilitarized zone after the Jan. 6 nuclear test, setting up loudspeakers blaring messages critical of Kim’s regime and South Korean pop music such as “Let Us Just Love” by girl group Apink and “A Centennial Life” by folk singer Lee Ae Ran.
Last week, South Korean troops fired warning shots at a North Korean drone that crossed the demarcation line, prompting its retreat. The government in Seoul is considering setting up giant electronic screens on the DMZ to show images of life south of the border.
The activities along the DMZ keep tensions high as envoys shuttle between South Korea, China and Japan to discuss retaliatory action such as fresh United Nations sanctions against North Korea. South Korea should retaliate immediately if North Korea makes an armed provocation, Park said Tuesday at a Cabinet meeting.
On Friday, North Korea said in a statement it wasn’t planning to “aggravate the situation,” offering to halt nuclear tests if the U.S. stopped its joint military drills with South Korea. It’s standard practice for North Korea to offer such concessions.
“North Korea is keeping South Korea busy in a low-strength conventional conflict while trying to bargain directly with the U.S.,” said Kim Jong-dae, a former South Korean defense official who publishes the Defense 21+ security monthly. “By playing up the psychological warfare, South Korea risks being left off the diplomatic chessboard.”
North Korea has made similar personal attacks on South Korean leaders when relations deteriorated in the past. In 2013, it turned to sexist taunts against Park, complaining about the “venomous swish” of her skirt for opposing its third nuclear test.
The work of South Korean activists such as Lee is at the vanguard of the propaganda attacks on North Korea. The balloons they fly over the border containing U.S. dollar bills, minichocolate pies made by companies including Lotte Confectionary Co., shortwave radios, memory sticks, movie DVDs and leaflets calling on North Koreans to reject Kim’s cult of personality.
Those campaigns have often met resistance from South Korean residents near the border who pressure their government to ban the activity due to concerns that North Korea could carry out its threat of artillery attacks against the activists.
“In a country like North Korea we are the mass media telling the truth,” said Lee, who now makes a living giving lectures on the country. “It’s time we step up our campaign and the government step up its campaign, too.”