In the Koreas, the Return of Balloon Diplomacy

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KIM JAE-HWAN / AFP / Getty Images

Balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets fly towards the North Korean border after being launched by activists on a hillside outside Seoul on Nov. 20, 2008

Few, if any, can have a go at North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on his home turf, but these days, a growing number of South Korean activists seem to be pulling it off — meteorological conditions permitting. "We have to wait for the winds to be just right," says Choi Sung Young, who was able to take advantage of rare southerly winds on the peninsula on Thursday to launch nearly a dozen gas-filled balloons, containing thousands of flyers pillorying Kim Jong Il's regime, and watch them float toward the border. (See pictures of The Rise of Kim Jong Il.)

This week, activists like Choi, president of the Representatives of the Abductees Family Union, whose members are mostly returned South Koreans kidnapped by North Korea and family members of kidnappees, have continued to organize their ongoing balloon launches in an unusually jittery climate of inter-Korean relations, ignoring threats by the North and pressure by the South to stop the launches. On Nov. 12, North Korea threatened it would shut the inter-Korean border within weeks. South Korea's Unification Ministry said North Korea, which has tolerated similar propaganda leaflets being floated in past years, made it clear that it would not accept messages saying the Dear Leader's days are numbered. Now, Pyongyang is blaming Seoul for failing to keep its activists in check.

Every year since 2003, between two and three million leaflets, inked by activist groups including the Representatives of the Abductees Family Union and North Korean defectors, have reportedly been floated across the border into North Korea. The recent flyers implore North Koreans to fight against Kim Jong Il and condemn his regime. Activists have also been stuffing dollars and Chinese yuan into the balloons, ostensibly to help North Koreans seeking to defect through its border with China. "Of course they've responded negatively because we mentioned Kim Jong Il's health," says Choi.

Seoul is no stranger to propaganda battles with the North, and only agreed four years ago that both governments would permanently end decades of propaganda warfare. For decades, the two countries pummeled each other with insults, denouncing each other's governments on radio broadcasts, loudspeakers across the demilitarized zone and on so-called 'paper bombs' — bundles of leaflets the two countries fired at each other. Then, in 2004, an agreement was reached to end the assaults. But since President Lee Myung Bak took office in February, relations with Pyongyang have again deteriorated. In July, when a South Korean housewife was shot during a trip to North Korea's Mount Geumgang, a symbol of reconciliation, South Korea suspended tours there and hasn't allowed its citizens to visit since.

Now Seoul is upset over the possibility that Pyongyang might shut the border, crippling a highly symbolic four-year-old joint industrial complex between North Korean and South Korean companies. Since South Korean laws protect freedom of speech, there's little the government can do to legally stop activists like Choi. That doesn't mean they don't try. "We cannot stop this activity," said one official at the Unification Ministry's public information office. "But we are making efforts." The Ministry would not outline how it has been trying to ground the balloons, but Choi says government officials have visited him at his office, sent him letters and e-mails and left messages on his website urging him to knock it off. At today's launch in Kimpo City, 20 miles northwest of Seoul, Choi and other activist groups were followed by police and some military, but weren't hindered. With the anti-Pyongyang activist groups vowing to continue launching their leaflets, the Cold War rivals could find themselves wondering if the past decade of exchanges was just a lot of hot air.

(See pictures released by North Korea to prove Kim Jong Il is in good health.