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

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Mammoth South Korean loudspeakers blaring BTS music. Large North Korean balloons carrying manure, cigarette butts and waste batteries. Small South Korean civilian leaflets slamming North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Day after day, the Cold War-style yet bizarre campaigns continue at the heavily fortified border of the rivals who haven’t had any serious talks for years.

“At this point, both Koreas are trying to pressure and deter each other with politically symbolic actions,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said. “The problem is that neither side wants to be seen as backing down, and tensions at the border could escalate to unintended conflict.”

Here is a look at the latest flare-up of tensions between the two Koreas.

Is the battle of the loudspeakers restarting?

On Sunday, South Korea redeployed its gigantic loudspeakers along the border for the first time in six years and resumed anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts. The broadcasts reportedly included K-pop sensation BTS’s mega-hits like “Butter” and “Dynamite,” weather forecasts and news on Samsung, the biggest South Korean company, as well as outside criticism of the North’s missile program and its crackdown on foreign video.

South Korean officials say the ear-piercing broadcasts were retaliation against North Korea’s recent series of balloon launches that dumped trash into South Korea, though it suffered no major damages. The North says its balloon campaign was a tit-for-tat action against South Korean activists flying political leaflets critical of its leadership across the border.

North Korea views frontline South Korean broadcasts and civilian leafleting campaigns as a grave provocation as it bans access to foreign news for most of its 26 million people.

According to South Korean officials, North Korea has also reinstalled its own propaganda loudspeakers near the border, but as of Tuesday morning, it hasn’t switched them on. North Korean broadcasts in the past revolved mainly around praising its system and harsh censuring of South Korea.

Balloon activities and loudspeaker broadcasts were among the psychological warfare that the two Koreas agreed to halt in 2018. During the Cold War, South Korea also used towering electronic billboards, reminiscent of the “Hollywood” sign near Los Angeles, while North Korea set up signboards with a message that read: “Let’s Establish a Confederate Nation!”

Whose loudspeakers are better?

South Korean officials have previously said broadcasts from their loudspeakers can travel about 10 kilometers (6 miles) during the day and 24 kilometers (15 miles) at night. They said past North Korean broadcasts from its loudspeakers were not clearly audible in South Korean areas.

Some frontline North Korean soldiers testified after their defections to South Korea that they had enjoyed South Korean broadcasts that contained pop songs and accurate weather forecasts that warned of potential rain and advised them to gather up laundry hung on outdoor clotheslines.

In 2015, when South Korea restarted loudspeaker broadcasts for the first time in 11 years, North Korea fired artillery rounds across the border, prompting the South to return fire, according to South Korean officials. No casualties were reported.

Can K-pop songs rock the boat in North Korea?

Experts and defectors say K-pop and other South Korean pop culture products like movies and TV dramas have emerged as a challenge to the North’s leadership as it steadily gained popularity among the public.

Kim since the pandemic has been intensifying a campaign to eliminate the influence of South Korean pop culture and language amongst his population in a bid to strengthen his family’s dynastic rule.

The playlists of South Korean loudspeaker broadcasts in 2016 included songs by a young female singer, IU, whose soft, soothing voice was believed meant to demoralize frontline North Korean male soldiers.

North Korea was more tolerant of South Korean pop culture when ties warmed in the past. During a short-lived period of rapprochement in 2018, North Korea let some of the South's biggest pop stars visit its capital, Pyongyang, and hold a rare performance.

South Korean TV footage showed that the North Korean audience seemed to enjoy classic ballads by crooners but was less enthusiastic about Red Velvet, a K-pop girl group known for their playful, high-pitched vocals and sexy choreography. Kim applauded the concert, reportedly calling it a “gift to Pyongyang citizens.”

Can a military clash happen?

There are concerns that the old-fashioned psychological warfare is increasing the risks of direct military clashes between the Koreas, both of whom have already made it clear that they are no longer bound by their landmark 2018 tension-reduction agreements.

Diplomacy between the two countries remains derailed since a broader U.S.-North Korea nuclear diplomacy collapsed in 2019. So it could be difficult for the rivals to set up talks as an off-ramp to get off the cycle of tit-for-tat tensions.

“South Korea has clear advantages in terms of information operations and conventional military capabilities, yet it also has more to lose in the event of a physical clash," Easley, the professor, said. "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 a way where it could avoid a direct counterattack, employing so-called “gray zone” tactics where its involvement isn't swiftly confirmed, said Wang Son-taek, a professor at Seoul’s Sogang University, wrote in a recent newspaper column.

The South Korean loudspeaker broadcasts reportedly lasted two hours on Sunday, and the country didn't turn on its speakers again on Monday and Tuesday. South Korean military said it's ready to launch immediate, strong retaliation if attacked.

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