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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
While leaflets likely sent by balloon from North Korea have been showing up in Seoul for decades, NK News has been covering their arrival more frequently than other media in South Korea over the past two years.
On the one hand this is because NK News staff and sources have been finding them around town with increasing frequency since late 2016, and on the other because South Korea’s National Security Law means local media seldom report on the details of leaflets found here.
But while it’s hard to know whether or not North Korea is sending more leaflets than in prior years, since January 2018 – when Kim Jong Un gave his New Year’s Speech calling for inter-Korean cooperation – the tone of these fliers found changed dramatically.
Given that the last two South Korean administrations were conservative in nature and mostly opposed to inter-Korean economic cooperation, it’s perhaps no surprise that the leaflets sent by the North prior to this change were either antagonistic in nature or designed to showcase the benefits of North Korean ideology.
Throughout the final period of Park Geun-hye administration, for example, crude cartoons found on North Korean leaflets found in Seoul often depicted the South Korean leader as worthy of death.
Since early January, leaflets coming to South Korea have since drastically changed in tone and design
Similar cartoons in late 2016 complained about the Obama administration’s support for the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system to South Korea, as well as in 2017 targeting figures like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for Tokyo’s stance on the controversial ‘comfort woman’ issue, as well as calling for the death of current U.S. President Trump.
But besides a steady flow of insults, another common theme in leaflet drops over Seoul has been to promote North Korean ideology through the celebration of the nation’s political system, anniversaries, and emerging weapons systems.
As a result, in 2017 these designs promoted issues like North Korea’s Pukguksong-2 solid-fueled ballistic missile capabilities, success stories about South Koreans who – decades ago – defected to the DPRK, and celebrations of anniversaries, like the birth of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
And while North Korean leaflets arriving in South Korea took a pause following Moon’s election – likely because of a change in the direction of prevailing winds during the summer months – it wasn’t long before they returned in October, taking renewed aim at President Trump and other key officials in the new South Korean administration. And so things continued this way until late December.
But as NK News has reported since early January, leaflets coming to South Korea have since drastically changed in tone and design.
Others have promoted famous symbols of inter-Korean economic cooperation, like the now-shuttered Kaesong industrial complex and the Mt. Kumgang tour zone. Some found in February have even directly referenced January’s inter-Korean talks and highlighting the “great door of unification”.
In addition, the style used for many has changed, no longer featuring crude and antagonistic cartoons.
Instead, happy photos of North and South Korean civilians mingling together, stills from South Korean TV news, as well as more locally recognizable cartoon depictions such as of the Pyeongchang Olympics mascots have been showing up with increasing frequency.
It’s all a far cry from what was arriving over the last two years. Which begs the question: what’s behind the change in tone? Just how effective are these leaflets really in shifting South Korean public opinion? And how do they even show up in South Korea in the first place?
LEAFLET PICKUP POINTS
North Korean propaganda leaflets and fliers coming to South Korea are thought to be sent by balloon from locations not far from the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries.
Dispatched from locations in the extreme southwest of North Korea, prevailing winds between fall and early spring appear to carry these balloons at high altitude to airspace above central Seoul, where they pop and distribute their cargoes over populated areas.
They are almost never found accompanied by evidence of burst balloons
“Usually, I find them on either the walk with my dog – in Gugidong and Pyeongchangdong area – or during shopping in Gugidong,” said one source who requested anonymity due to the fact South Korean law obliges citizens to pass the leaflets to police, not journalists. “As for the timing, usually I find them in the morning, and I presume they arrive by night.”
But NK News staff, this correspondent included, have been surprised to find leaflets regularly showing up in the same parts of Seoul.
Furthermore, they are almost never found accompanied by evidence of burst balloons, leading some to ponder whether undercover operatives sympathetic to the North are actually physically distributing the leaflets on behalf of the DPRK.
But specialists familiar with balloon launches like Pastor Eric Foley, whose Seoul-based NGO Voice of the Martyrs regularly sends balloons northwards, says the reoccurring locations and lack of accompanying balloons may support the idea they are dropped from the skies.
“The discovery of flyers repeatedly in the same locations does not rule out balloon launching, nor does the lack of discovery of balloon remnants,” he says. “In fact, both of those things would be consistent with balloon launching and with North Korea’s past launch activities.”
“Wind tracking indicates a consistent launch location from inside North Korea, which would be quite a coincidence if it were not balloon activity,” Foley explains. “And for us, we find that the consistent wind patterns over the peninsula make it easy to reach the same areas over and over again.”
Furthermore, the anonymous source said the locations leaflets are sometimes found don’t support the idea that people are placing them there manually.
“We know so little about the process of manufacture and distribution of these leaflets”
“They can as well be found in the mountain, where no path exists and that is why I am so sure they come by balloon, and are not distributed by hand.”
And the lack of evidence of popped balloons?
“The more sophisticated balloons used by groups like Voice of the Martyrs Korea pop high in the atmosphere and leave no trace,” Foley says, adding that his group’s research suggests North Korean agents use the same type to send their leaflets South.
RESPONDING TO NEWS
Analysts said the abrupt change in tone makes sense: it was North Korea’s Supreme Leader, after all, who personally declared on January 1 that Pyongyang is now interested in improving relations with the South.
“What Kim Jong Un said marked a 180-degree turnaround in North Korea’s policy towards the South,” said Go Myong-Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
“Not unlike in Orwell’s 1984, North Korea is a society that can turn on a dime (and) the propaganda leaflet is an element in a larger “peace offensive” campaign,” he said.
Consequently, the change in tone had been “dramatic,” representing a new line of propaganda “not been seen for the last ten years,” said the anonymous source who found many of the leaflets in 2018.
“Together with the representation of North Korea at the Olympics I would say (the new style) shows a seriousness to come back to business with South Korea, (but) not yet the USA,” the anonymous source said.
But the rapid change raises questions about how the North is able to produce new content.
“We know so little about the process of manufacture and distribution of these leaflets,” said Jacco Zwetsloot, who has long studied North Korean leaflets from Seoul.
“There must be a time lag between events on the ground and the change in propaganda messaging, but we saw it happen quite quickly – just a matter of 2 or 3 weeks – between the Panmunjom talks and the new Olympic-themed leaflets.”
Foley, who launches balloons to the North, said that “a great advantage of balloon launching is that messaging can be changed overnight.”
“North Korea has always coordinated its balloon flyer strategy with its overall messaging, and the present launches are no exception (serving) as a reminder that they are more frequently on the offensive than the defensive when it comes to media and messaging.”
“It doesn’t seem like a particularly effective way to persuade people in the 21st century”
But because senders in the North are appearing quick to respond to changes in the news cycle, it suggests belief there exists that leaflets dropped by balloon are effective to warrant regular investment in the practice.
How effective, then, are North Korean leaflets in convincing Seoulites about the virtues of Kim Jong Un’s Korea?
“I think they have almost no impact whatsoever, frankly,” said Christopher Green, a North Korea researcher at the University of Leiden. “Very few people see them, and even fewer people care. Those who are apt to be swayed by the message, already have been.”
“How often do you get handed a leaflet on the street and find it changes your opinion?” asked Andray Abrahamian, a research fellow at the CSIS Pacific Forum in Hawaii.
“It doesn’t seem like a particularly effective way to persuade people in the 21st century in general (and) on this topic, it’s targeting a public that has been through these kinds of messaging campaigns before and is probably a little bit jaded.”
The anonymous source who regularly finds the leaflets agreed about their likely efficacy: “I personally did not meet yet a South Korean who takes these leaflets serious… to my best observation, the leaflets are seen as litter/ waste in South Korea.”
But not all agree, particularly with the emerging line visible in some recent flyers.
“The leaflet showing the two PyeongChang Olympic mascots is a brilliant piece of propaganda from North Korea, because it almost completely eschews any obvious North Korean symbol or messaging,” said Zwetsloot. “These images might be momentarily confusing to a South Korean audience.”
However, any positive impact could be short-lived, as “then they go and produce leaflets that include blatant North Korean symbolism – the Socialist Realist struggle tableaux, for instance – and I think these give the game away and work against the cross-DMZ solidarity that Pyongyang is aiming for.”
And another effect on not those who necessarily find the leaflets, but those who hear about them arriving in the South.
“Leaflets seldom work on the larger public,” Asan’s Dr. Go said. “But some conservatives believe pro-North Korea (or Nationalist) groups and individuals in the South take their cues from these leaflets, so these are not a total waste for the North Korea propaganda apparatus.”
Featured image: NK News