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Impact of Leaflet Operations

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By Tong Kim

The North Korean People's Army (KPA) has strongly reacted to balloon-born leaflets from the South dropping on their side across from the Demilitarized Zone.

The mode of leaflet dissemination and its content readily remind me of the psychological warfare campaign that the United Nations Command (UNC) in Korea aggressively conducted in the mid 1960s. The difference now is it's led by a small, determined group of North Korean defectors.

In protest, the KPA's representative has met twice in October with his ROK Army counterpart at working level meetings of the inter-Korean military talks, demanding that the South Korean government stop the civic organization's leaflet operations. These propaganda leaflets demonize North Korean leader Kim Jong-il as a ''devilish killer'' and effectively exploit the North's economic vulnerability.

The North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) ― through which North Korean propagandists often vilify President Lee Myung-bak as a ''national traitor'' ― have issued a consistent warning several times already that if the leaflet dissemination does not stop, the North may have to suspend the joint project at the Gaeseong Industrial Complex. The North Koreans do not always make good on their word, but their warnings reflect their views on the prospect of inter-Korean relations.

The North Koreans are silent about their bellicose verbal attacks on President Lee and conservative groups in the South. Psychological warfare has resumed between the propagandists in Pyongyang and the North Korean defectors in Seoul, who Pyongyang believes to be acting with the support of the government of the South.

The revival of mutual slander and psychological operations are clearly in violation of the agreement of its suspension in the 1992 Basic North-South Agreement, its confirmation in the 2000 inter-Korean summit agreement and a specific agreement by the inter-Korean military generals meeting in June 2004 to cease all leaflet and loudspeaker operations in the DMZ,

Speaking of the efficacy of leaflet operations, the KPA's reaction thus far is a good measurement of feedback. The leaflet designers are people who lived in the North and are well aware of the psychological vulnerabilities of their target audience ― food and energy shortages are probably the most real source of the targets' dissatisfaction. The North Korean defectors also know the language of the target audience ― terms and spellings that are different from those that are used in the South.

In the 1960s I was in charge of leaflet production for the UNC, which was interested in leaflet operations because of the difficulty of reaching North Koreans by broadcasts as their radios were all fixed to receive North Korean broadcasts only, and not many radios capable of receiving broadcast on short wave were available in the North. Psychological operations were not prohibited under the Armistice Agreement of 1953.

Today there are about 14,000 North Korean defectors living in the South. But in those days there were only a few dozen people who came to the South after the end of the Korean War. They included KPA defectors crossing over the DMZ and North Korean spies who either surrendered or were captured after infiltration. We took prototype leaflets ― complete with written and graphic messages ― to a panel of North Korean defectors and agents to hear how they would react to those leaflets if they had been still in the North. Their contributions were reflected in the final leaflet product.

This pre-test was an integral part of strategic leaflet production along with a target analysis based on available intelligence and a thematic exploitation of identifiable target vulnerabilities. In those days, any direct attack on Kim Il-sung was deemed to be counterproductive. Contrary to Western views, we found that Kim Il-sung was regarded by the people in the North truly as a ''great leader.'' This was a core belief of the North Koreans at the time.

So instead, we tried to stress the benefits of freedom and democracy to influence the attitude of our audience positively toward the South, while discrediting Pyongyang's political propaganda claims that South Korea was a ''puppet of U.S. imperialism'' and that South Koreans were struggling to survive under ''control of U.S. occupation.'' this was 40 years ago.

As for the method of leaflet dissemination, the UNC utilized ''high altitude dissemination'' not ''leaflet bombs'' by which millions of leaflets are released from huge military aircraft flying over 30,000 feet in altitude along the DMZ. Leaflets traveled according to wind currents, reaching as far as Pyongyang. The most favorable weather conditions for high altitude dissemination were around the monsoon season in Korea, when strong winds blow towards the North. The best-traveling leaflets were approximately 3'' x 6.5'' in size and weighed 16lbs in total.

The UNC was not directly involved in balloon operations, which were carried out by the ROK Army in addition to the ROK's loudspeaker broadcasts towards North Korean soldiers. Apparently, the defectors group is using an effective balloon method of leaflet drops, using helium and timed fuses.

As the KCNA complained, their leaflets have reached the vast areas of Hwanghae Province and Gangwon Province along the DMZ, but their leaflet sizes ― 8.5'' x 11'' and 5'' x 7'' ― have the least effective dimensions for traveling.

The question is whether we should go back to the old days of confrontation and malicious propaganda at a time when the political environment has changed so much on the Korean peninsula and elsewhere in the region. Competition between the North and the South has long been over.

Pyongyang is reacting to inadvertent statements of South Korean officials ― including the defense minister who said ''we should not spoil Kim Jong-il'' by showing too much attention to his health conditions. Pyongyang is ratcheting up its belligerent reaction to Seoul's talk of OPLAN 5028 to prepare for a ''sudden collapse of'' or a ''possible coup'' against its regime, and the consequences of an incapacitated Kim Jong-il or his eventual absence.

The KPA has always been sensitive to joint U.S.-ROK deterrent efforts ― either through combined military exercises, defense ministerial meetings, or the ROK's acquisition of new weapons, which is expected to increase with the recently upgraded status of South Korea to that of the NATO plus three nations. The KPA now says the ''South Korean war-hawks announced a preemptive strike as a basic mode of attack'' against the North, blustering that its own ''advanced preemptive strike capability, more powerful than nuclear weapons, would reduce the South to ashes.''

Seoul's Unification Ministry seems to try to move in the right direction by discouraging leaflet drops. It is time for both sides to stop mutual slander and for the defector group not to attack the North Korean leader directly. Suspension of leaflet operations and the resumption of tourism to Mt. Geumgang seem to be the first steps to reducing tension between the North and South. What's your take?

Tong Kim is a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University SAIS. He can be reached at

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