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Trash Balloons: Tensions Rise between Seoul, Pyongyang

South Korea will suspend a military agreement with North Korea, as tensions heightened between Seoul and Pyongyang in recent weeks over the latter’s launch of trash balloons into the South.

North Korea has sent hundreds of trash-filled balloons across the borders, angering South Korea, which called it a provocation and pledged to respond with retaliatory steps.

Trash Balloons

Over the past week, North Korea has sent nearly a thousand balloons carrying trash, including manure, cigarette butts, scraps of cloth and waste paper into the South. It said this was a retaliation against North Korean defectors and activists in the South sending leaflets containing anti-regime propaganda and USB drives with K-pop music and dramas.

North Korea said on Sunday it would stop the balloon campaign, warning that more could come when needed.

Balloon Campaigns

Balloons coming from South Korea have irritated North Korean’s officials, as they contain material banned by Kim Jong Un’s regime. Thus, these balloons are considered an attempt to defy constraints imposed by Pyongyang on the isolated North Korean people.

North Korean officials wanted to send a message to the South, showing how annoying these balloons could be and trying to push back against these efforts.

Trash Balloons: Tensions Rise between Seoul, Pyongyang
Trash bag crossed the inter-Korean border

In this regard, Victor Cha, a Georgetown professor of government, told Vox: “Kim [Jong Un] doesn’t want his people to know about their relative deprivation and the quality of life in the free world. He is more afraid of BTS than US nukes.”

Agreement Suspension

In response to trash balloons, South Korea’s National Security Council said on Tuesday Seoul would fully suspend a tension-reducing military agreement with the North and resume frontline military activities.

According to the Associated Press (AP), South Korea’s Cabinet Council and President Yoon Suk Yeol approved the suspension of the 2018 inter-Korean agreement aimed to reduce military tensions and avoid escalation. The decision will take effect once Seoul notifies Pyongyang.

The military agreement was reached in 2018 during a period of warmer ties between the two neighbors. It required both sides to cease all hostile acts at border areas, including live fire drills, aerial drills, and psychological warfare.

Seoul partially suspended the agreement in 2023 after the North put a spy satellite into orbit last November. Similarly, Pyongyang announced last year it was no longer bound by the deal. Since then, North Korea deployed military troops and weapons at guard posts near the border.

North Korea Provocations

South Korea’s deputy defense minister for policy, Cho Chang-rae, told reporters that Seoul will use all available measures to protect its people from Pyongyang’s provocations.

Cho said: “The responsibility for this situation lies solely with North Korea. If North Korea launches additional provocations, our military, in conjunction with the solid South Korea-US defense posture, will punish North Korea swiftly, strongly and to the end.”

Trash Balloons: Tensions Rise between Seoul, Pyongyang
South Korean soldiers examine the components of a trash bag

During the cabinet meeting, South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said the deal has undermined South Korean military readiness at a time when the people are facing increased threats due to the North’s provocations. Han referred to North Korea’s trash balloons, nuclear weapon tests, and jamming of GPS navigation signals.

What’s Next?

According to South Korean officials, suspending the agreement would allow Seoul to arrange frontline military exercises. Other observers expect South Korea to restart frontline propaganda loudspeaker broadcasts, as part of a psychological campaign that could spark skirmishes along the borders.

While North Korea didn’t immediately respond to its southern neighbor’s decision, scrapping the agreement will likely drive Pyongyang to take similar or stronger steps along the borders.

Hong Min, a senior analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, told CBS News that Seoul’s move shows it will not tolerate trash balloons coming across the border. “However, it could further provoke Pyongyang when it is impossible to physically block the balloons drifting southwards in the air,” he added.

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