Garbage, Balloons, and Korean Unification Values

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Since late May, North Korea has launched thousands of balloons into South Korea filled with trash, marking the return of a long-used tactic of psychological warfare between the two Koreas. Rather than a sign of impending conflict, as some posit, the campaign is a manifestation of Kim Jong-un’s new decoupling policy and a preemption of the new South Korean unification policy focused on the values of freedom and human rights.

Q1: What is the extent of North Korea’s campaign involving garbage-filled balloons?

A1: Between May 28 to June 26, North Korea sent seven waves of balloons full of trash into South Korea. Over the course of a month, South Korean citizens were peppered with balloons containing animal and human feces, batteries, cigarette butts, clothes, dark soil, plastic bottles, toilet paper, wastepaper, and vinyl falling from the sky. Some balloons had Kim family propaganda—cut into pieces—a serious crime punishable by death within North Korea. A few had denim jeans, which is notoriously designated as “anti-socialist” by North Korean authorities. One even had the word “excrement” explicitly written on it.

These balloons landed indiscriminately all over South Korean territory, hitting cars, farms, neighborhoods, restaurants, and schools. A trash-filled balloon that fell at Terminal 2 of Incheon International Airport caused a three-hour suspension of flights—the second flight suspension in June related to the balloons. Between 2,000 and 5,000 of these refuse-filled balloons have flown over the 38th parallel, with at least 1,300 of them landing successfully in South Korea. As the map shows, these balloons have been reported in 778 locations (as confirmed by South Korean authorities) and found in all but two South Korean provinces.

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According to North Korea, the balloon campaign is “strictly a responsive act” to the South Korean information balloon campaign and was meant to show South Koreans “how dirty it feels” and how much trouble North Korea had to go through to “clean up spread-out rubbish.” Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, was more sarcastic, calling the balloons “gifts of sincerity” to South Koreans, who “cry for freedom of expression.”

Q2: How has South Korea reacted?

A2: South Korean authorities were quick to respond to the balloon landings. Cautious of the content inside the balloons, the South Korean military deployed explosives ordnance units and chemical and biological warfare response teams to inspect and collect the balloons. An alert was sent to warn citizens not to touch them, for fear of hazardous materials (none has been found yet). The government called the acts “base and dangerous,” and the Presidential Office eventually warned of “unendurable” countermeasures, which temporarily led to North Korea suspending its balloon campaign. The pause did not last long, as Pyongyang quickly resumed its balloon offensive less than a week later.

While there has been no report of injuries, there have been some cases of vehicle damage (in at least three instances), some property damage (an estimated $18,824 so far), and plenty of nuisance and trash—at least 15 tons—for South Koreans to clean up. The contents of these balloons have been a source of intelligence for the South Korean authorities, which have found numerous parasites—including roundworms, whipworms, and threadworms—within the human feces and soil in the balloons. The findings also suggest that the human feces were likely used as fertilizer in North Korea, alluding to unsanitary living conditions and poor health standards.

Q3: Are these balloon campaigns novel?

A3: Sending balloons across the border is not a new practice. During the Korean War, the U.S. military sent over 4 billion leaflets via balloons into North Korea in an effort to “bury the enemy in paper,” reciprocated by 300 million North Korean leaflets. Throughout the Cold War, both North and South Korea stuffed propaganda leaflets in balloons as part of cross-border psychological warfare campaigns. A June 2004 inter-Korea agreement temporarily ended this practice. But after landmines injured South Korean soldiers patrolling along the DMZ in 2015, the Park Geun-hye government restarted loudspeaker broadcasts in retaliation, prompting North Korea to once again send balloons. Those balloons typically had explosion timers, causing them to burst mid-air. Stuffed inside were propaganda leaflets critical of the South Korean government, with messages such as “Park Geun-hye and her clan are dogs that have gone crazy” or “Stop with any further hostilities or stupid actions that can threaten your security!” This practice persisted between 2016 and 2018, until the next period of inter-Korean reconciliation in April 2018.

But in the past 15 years, balloon launches have become synonymous with a handful of South Korean activist groups, often North Korean defectors, who send information balloons filled with bibles, money, leaflets, short-wave radios, and USBs and SD cards with K-pop and K-dramas—as well as essential supplies such as food and medicine—to North Korea. According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, activists sent at least 20 million leaflets between 2008 to 2020. And so far in 2024, one South Korean activist group has already sent over 375 balloons, with another group sending 3D-printed “smart balloons” outfitted with GPS-tracking, a leaflet dispenser, and small speakers.

But at the end of the day, the motivations behind the balloon campaigns from both sides offer a stark contrast. The balloons from South Korea show aspirations for a better future, while the balloons from North Korea reflect the reality and difficulties of life in a closed state.

Q4: Why is North Korea undertaking this balloon campaign now?

A4: First, the balloons are the latest manifestation of North Korea’s new “decoupling” policy from South Korea. The Kim regime is extremely angry with both the conservative and liberal political parties in South Korea. This dates back to 2020 when North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong during the Moon Jae-in government (the installation had been renovated by South Korea in 2018 at a cost of $8.6 million).

Fast forward to this January, Kim Jong-un announced that he will no longer seek reconciliation and reunification with South Korea, labeling the relationship as one between “belligerent” and “hostile countries.” Two weeks later, in a speech in front of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim asked for the constitution to be amended to refer to South Korea as a “primary foe and invariable principal enemy.” In the same speech, he called an arch dedicated to reunification built under his father, Kim Jong-Il, an “eyesore” and vowed to dismantle it. Satellite imagery a week later showed that he was true to his words. The Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification, located on a major thruway in Pyongyang, aptly named Unification Street, was gone.

North Korea’s pique is to be expected in light of South Korea’s conservative government, but the most recent progressive government was not spared either, largely due to the failure of the 2018–19 summit diplomacy involving former U.S. president Donald Trump. At the time, advice and deal-making entreaties by the Moon Jae-in government resulted in Kim’s embarrassment in Hanoi when Trump walked out of a meeting. North Korea blamed the South Korean government at the time for the failure of the most consequential diplomatic gambit in North Korea’s history. Thus, their distaste for South Korea is not just with Yoon’s conservative policies—it is bipartisan.

Second, the balloon launches are most specifically in response to the Yoon government allowing the restart of information balloon launches by civil society groups. This was criminalized under the previous government when a 2020 law (the first of its kind) was passed that imposed fines of up to $27,000 (₩30 million) and prison sentences of up to three years for breaking the law. The same law also criminalized blasting loudspeaker broadcasts and placing billboards at the inter-Korean border, although these activities are normally a government psyop, not conducted by civilians.

But that law was nullified by South Korea’s constitutional court in September 2023, which ruled it unconstitutional in a 7–2 decision. The court deemed that the law had excessively restricted the freedom of expression after a complaint was brought to the court by North Korean defector-activists. The Yoon government further reversed the ban on June 3 when it fully suspended the Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA), rendering the balloon ban moot. It is important to note that it was North Korea who first de facto abrogated the CMA in November 2023. Pyongyang’s action was a retaliation after South Korea had partially suspended the agreement in response to a successful North Korean satellite test.

Q5: What is the tie between balloons and unification?

A5: Some pundits have argued that Pyongyang’s actions are part and parcel to belligerent intentions with regard to South Korea. Korea-watchers Robert Carlin and Sigfried Hecker have argued that Kim Jong-un, like his grandfather, “has made a strategic decision to go to war.”

This thesis has attracted a great deal of attention but may not accurately reflect reality. First, if Kim Jong-un were really preparing for war, it is unlikely that he would be selling all of his ammunition to Russia. Second, if war were really in the cards, Kim would not be decoupling from South Korea. North Korea’s strategic deception tactics are all about misleading its adversaries. If war were imminent, North Korea would not be telegraphing future aggression—it would be duplicitously calling for inter-Korean peace initiatives, just as it did on the eve of the Korean War.

Instead, the end to unification rhetoric and the launching of garbage-filled balloons is a preemptive action designed to undercut South Korea’s new forthcoming unification policy. Under Kim Yong-ho, the new unification minister, South Korea appears to be pursuing a unification discourse not framed in sovereign terms but in terms of the values of freedom and human rights. That is, the core message is not about victory over the other side (the traditional conservative view of unification) or in terms of interstate reconciliation (the traditional liberal view). The emerging unification policy appears to be about framing Korean unification in terms of universal values. As Unification Minister Kim foreshadowed, “[the] government is preparing a new discourse on unification that embodies the values of freedom and human rights and can garner support from the international community.” He explained further that the new discourse is in line with President Yoon’s vision of expanding the “universal values of freedom and human rights.”

The new unification vision does not seek to compete with the North Korean state; rather it appeals to the North Korean people, who should be entitled to this freedom and would secure these freedoms as part of unification. It appears to equate unification not with North Korea being absorbed by South Korea but with universal freedoms: freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom from hunger, and the freedom to be educated. This is an intense and powerful message to the people of North Korea, which, if heard, would be more threatening than any U.S.-ROK military exercise or nuclear strategic bombers skirting the coastline.

Kim Jong-un wants to preempt this by cutting off all ties with South Korea and removing the notion of unification from the minds of the North Korean people. The sending of trash, moreover, is in itself an explicit acknowledgment of the bankruptcy of their ideology and ideas in South Korea. They know that sending leaflets about Kimilsungism is laughable in South Korea. This would not have been the case during the early Cold War days when the North Korean economy was doing better than South Korea and there was strong labor and radical student support for Marxist-Leninist ideals. Now, the alternative is to send trash.

However, while these balloons reflect North Korean weakness and insecurity, they should not be taken lightly. The trash-filled balloons and the damage they do is a form of soft terrorism. Just imagine if they put unidentifiable white powder in the balloons instead; it would create panic in South Korea among the public and impact the foreign capital in the country’s economy. Also, South Korean reciprocation with restarting loudspeaker broadcasts could escalate the situation, as Kim Yo-jong has threatened in the past to destroy speakers with military fire. This would amount to dangerous escalation alongside the recent GPS signal jamming, encroachments into the DMZ, and missile demonstrations.

Andy Lim is an associate fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Victor Cha is senior vice president for Asia and Korea Chair at CSIS.

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Andy Lim
Associate Fellow, Korea Chair
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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair