PAJU, SOUTH KOREA – A planned launch of balloons by South Korean activists to send leaflets to North Korea on Saturday with messages critical of its leader turned into a clash with residents of the border area who said the move will threaten peace between the two countries.
Hundreds of residents of the city of Paju near the heavily militarized border turned up in a show of force, many elderly farmers and some driving tractors aimed at blocking roads, to try and stop the launch of the leaflets by anti-North groups.
North Korea has threatened unspecified “military action” if the launch were to be allowed by South Korean authorities and said it could scuttle planned inter-Korean talks aimed at easing tensions and improve ties.
Local residents, some of whom have been camping out in the area, met activists and threw eggs at some of them, demanding they turn back and leave them to live in peace.
“Things like this will trigger artillery firing at us,” said Kwon Soon-wan, 63, who said he was born and raised in the township of Munsan, the northern-most area of Paju, and runs a snack-bar there.
“Safety is top priority because it’s our lives that are hanging in the balance,” he added.
Choi Woo-won, one of the activists pelted with an egg, said, “By the time our leaflets cover all of North Korea, murderer Kim Jong Un will perish and be destroyed.”
But it was not clear whether the group would be able to go ahead with the planned launch of the leaflets, after activists who advocate engagement with the North sabotaged some balloons. Several hundred police were on site, adding to the chaos in a normally quiet area visited by South Korean and some Chinese tourists.
The two Koreas remain technically at war because a truce was signed at the end of their 1950-53 conflict not a peace treaty. More than 1.8 million troops are deployed on the peninsula, making it one of the world’s most heavily armed hot spots.
The North has blamed the South Korean government for previous leaflet launches and has threatened to respond with military action.
The propaganda printed on the leaflets infuriates Pyongyang and has threatened to derail talks agreed between the two Koreas after the North sent a high-level delegation earlier this month, which was seen as its biggest peace overture in years. The messages often single out Kim, the North’s young leader, questioning his legitimacy to rule a country where people struggle with poverty while his family lives in luxury and scarce resources are channeled to arms programs.
Earlier this month the North fired machine guns at a balloon, launched by a defector, when it flew low across the border because it was short of gas.
Authorities in the South have urged activists to refrain from launching the leaflets on safety grounds, but say they can not legally stop them due to the constitutional freedom of expression.
Cho Sung-ho, a 66-year-old farmer who grows beans in a special area near the border where usual civilian access is limited, said the leaflets harm the South’s national interest. “I want them to refrain. It will stop everything, like tourism here,” he said, adding the political tension surrounding the leaflet campaign has also affected his farm work. “I want dialogue to solve the issues (between the Koreas), not this.”