Cash for trash: How activists are responding to Pyongyang's rubbish-filled balloons into South Korea

A balloon believed to have been sent by North Korea, carrying various objects including what appeared to be trash and excrement, is seen over a rice field at Cheorwon, South Korea, May 29, 2024. 

Yonhap News Agency | Reuters

The battle of the balloons continues.

North Korean defectors, part of an activist group in Seoul, are fighting back — not with balloons filled with trash and excrement, but with K-pop and dollar bills instead.

Activist group Free North Korea Movement said Thursday it had sent 10 giant balloons carrying 5,000 USB sticks containing K-pop videos and dramas, 200,000 leaflets condemning North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and 2,000 $1 bills, into North Korea.

Just last week, North Korea sent balloons filled with trash, fertilizer and other waste across the border in what it said was a tit-for-tat against South Korean activists employing similar means to spread anti-North Korean messaging. 

“We sent facts and truth, love and medicine, and dollar bills, but [the North] sent filth,” head of Fighters for Free North Korea, Park Sang-hak, said in a statement.

Foreign media, information and culture — which include Korean pop music and dramas produced in the South — are banned in the reclusive North as they represent a challenge to Kim’s totalitarian regime, the Center for Strategic and International Studies has said.

Pyongyang claims to have sent more than 3,500 balloons carrying 15 tons of trash to its neighbor, according to state media Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Sunday.

North Korea’s vice-minister of national defense, Kim Kang Il, said his country will temporarily halt the dropping of trash across the border, but warned it will scatter waste that’s “hundred times the amount” sent by the South if activists continue to scatter leaflets.

In response to the North’s waste balloons, South Korea suspended the inter-Korean military pact signed in 2018, which was aimed at easing animosities. The move allows Seoul to resume military training near the border, as well as play propaganda broadcasts and K-pop songs via loudspeakers.

The suspension is effective until “mutual trust between the South and the North is restored,” said South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo.

North and South Korea are technically still at war, as the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a ceasefire instead of a peace treaty.

For years, groups like the Free North Korea Movement have been deploying balloons carrying items like medicine, propaganda leaflets and South Korean news and media into the North. 

There are no legal grounds prohibiting ordinary citizens from sending balloons into North Korea after South Korea’s Constitutional Court struck down a law banning the transmission of leaflets and other information in 2023.

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