What Is the Leaflet Campaign?

  • By Kwak Chang-yeol

    June 20, 2020 08:20

    The campaign to send propaganda leaflets across the border to North Korea dates back to the 1950-53 Korean War, when the U.S. military dropped hundreds of millions of them from bombers and fighter planes.

    North Korea also disseminated them by the truckload. Lee Yoon-kyu at the Joint Forces Military University recalled, "At that time, propaganda leaflets were focused on slandering the other side so they weren't that convincing, but they had a huge impact on the morale of the enemy and that's why both sides went all out."

    This year marks the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, but the leaflets, which ought to be museum pieces, have emerged once again as a major sticking point in cross-border relations. Nowadays they are attached to helium balloons by North Korean defectors and floated across the demilitarized zone, or sealed in PET bottles and entrusted to the currents. Sometimes drones drop them over the border region.

    North Korea at least claimed that they were the reason it severed all communication channels with South Korea. The South Korean government obligingly called the police and tried to find some reason why they might be illegal, alighting in the end on health-and-safety regulations and the small print of cross-border exchange laws. It also threatened to strip the activist groups of their charitable status.

    ◆ Tables Turned

    According to one former officer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff who used to participate the production of the leaflets, in the 1960s-80s North Korean-made propaganda leaflets outnumbered South Korean ones by 4:1. That was due to the North's confidence in its economic superiority.

    Especially in the early years, North Korean leaflets boasted that its people live in an earthly paradise devoid of unemployment, beggars, taxes and educational and medical expenses. The North even attached U.S. dollar bills to them.

    But the tables turned when South Korea's economy achieved stellar growth. South Korea shifted the contents from slander to more factual information. There might be photos of large shopping malls as well as images of then-President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il embracing each other at their summit in 2000.

    One person who worked at the Defense Ministry at that time said, "The ideological war pretty much ended in the 1990s, so we decided it was far more effective to just state the facts and provide news to North Koreans." The amount of propaganda leaflets sent over by the North decreased markedly after the reclusive state determined they were no longer effective.

    The South Korean government officially stopped sending leaflets to North Korea in 2004 after the two Koreas agreed to prevent armed clashes on the West Sea. That was when activist groups consisting mainly of defectors took over.

    Their main focus was criticizing then-leader Kim Jong-il and later his son Kim Jong-un. The leaflets stated historical facts that are usually kept from North Koreans, for example that North Korea started the Korean War, that Kim Jong-un's mother was an ethnic Korean from Japan, and that South Korea's economy leaves North Korea's in the dust. They have also focused on the escape of North Koreans to South Korea. Sometimes they included dollar bills and North Korean won, instant noodles and even rice.

    ◆ Information Vacuum

    Experts think propaganda leaflets are effective because there is such a news vacuum in the North that any outside information is being devoured. Due to the indoctrination of young North Koreans, some innocuous facts can also have an explosive impact.

    Lee said, "The fact that Kim Jong-un's mother is from Japan is the Achilles heel of the North Korean leader and the only way North Korean people can find out about that is from propaganda leaflets sent by the South. That’s why North Korea is reacting so intensely." The North Korean regime has an intense obsession with the purity of the leaders' bloodline and its fictitious origins on Mt. Baekdu.

    In the late 1990s, the regime tried to prevent people from looking at the leaflets by claiming that the instant noodles and other edibles sent with them were contaminated and any physical contact could trigger skin cancer.

    Lee Min-bok, a North Korean defector who has been flying leaflets into the North, said, "North Korea deifies its leader, while its people have been taught that the Korean War was a war of liberation, but all of these teachings have been challenged and that's why the North is causing such a fuss."

    Park Sang-hak, the most prominent leaflet campaigner and head of Fighters for a Free North Korea, said, "North Koreans found out through our leaflets that they can defect through China. Many North Koreans in Wonsan were motivated in their defection by the leaflets during the 1990s."

    Whether the leaflets really have a destabilizing impact is debatable. All that is known is that the North is annoyed enough about them to have used them as a pretext for its latest histrionics.

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