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South Korea says it will suspend peace deal with North Korea over balloon launches

An officer wearing protective gear collects the trash from a balloon presumably sent by North Korea, in Siheung, South Korea, on Sunday.
Hong Ki-won
Yonhap via AP
An officer wearing protective gear collects the trash from a balloon presumably sent by North Korea, in Siheung, South Korea, on Sunday.

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea announced Monday it’ll suspend a rapprochement deal with North Korea to punish it over its launches of trash-carrying balloons, even after the North said it would halt its balloon campaign.

Over several days, North Korea flew hundreds of balloons to drop trash and manure on South Korea in an angry reaction against previous South Korean civilian leafleting campaigns. On Sunday, South Korea said it would take “unbearable” retaliatory steps in response, before North Korea abruptly announced it would stop flying balloons across the border.

On Monday, South Korea’s presidential national security council said it has decided to suspend a 2018 inter-Korean agreement aimed at easing frontline animosities, until mutual trust between the two Koreas is restored, according to the presidential office.

The security council said the suspension would allow South Korea to resume military drills near the border with North Korea and take effective, immediate responses to provocations by North Korea. It said a proposal on the suspension will be introduced at the Cabinet Council on Tuesday for approval.

Observers say South Korea needs the deal's suspension to restart blasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts, K-pop songs and outside news from border loudspeakers. They say such broadcasts have previously stung in the rigidly controlled North, where most of its 26 million people are not allowed official accesses to foreign news.

The 2018 agreement, reached during a brief period of reconciliation between then-liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, require the Koreas to cease all hostile acts against each other, including propaganda broadcasts and leafleting campaigns.

But the accord doesn’t clearly state civilian leafleting should also be banned. That has allowed South Korean activists to continue to fly balloons to drop anti-Pyongyang leaflets, USB sticks with South Korean dramas and world news, and U.S. dollars in North Korea. Enraged over such leafleting campaigns, North Korea has previously fired at incoming balloons and destroyed a South Korean-built, unoccupied inter-Korean liaison office in the North.

The 2018 deal has already been in the danger of collapsing. Tension spiked after North Korea's spy satellite launch last November prompted both Koreas to take steps in breach of the accord — South Korea resuming frontline aerial surveillance and North Korea restoring border guard posts.

Since last Tuesday, a total of about 1,000 North Korean balloons carrying manure, cigarette butts, scraps of cloth and waste paper have been discovered in various parts of South Korea. No hazardous substances were found, according to South Korea's military.

On Sunday night, Kim Kang Il, a North Korean vice defense minister, said the North would stop its balloon campaign because it left the South Koreans with “enough experience of how much unpleasant they feel.” He said North Korea will fly balloons again if South Korean activists restart their own balloon activities.

Experts say North Korea’s balloon campaign, reportedly the first of its kind in seven years, is meant to trigger a divide in South Korea over its current conservative government's tough policy on the North. Since 2022, North Korea has dramatically ramped up its weapons tests in what analysts call an attempt to bolster its nuclear capability and increase its leverage in future diplomacy with the U.S.

Copyright 2024 NPR

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]