June 25, 2024

SEOUL — After North Korea recently sent thousands of waste-filled balloons to South Korea, activists here responded with airborne deliveries that the regime up north might find even more despicable than garbage: K-pop and K-dramas.

On Thursday, activists in South Korea set aloft 10 large balloons containing thousands of USB drives loaded with local music — including K-pop and trot songs, an old-school South Korean genre experiencing a modern revival — and “Winter Sonata,” a hugely popular romance TV series.

Launched after midnight from Pocheon, a city about 30 miles northeast of Seoul, the balloons also carried 200,000 leaflets criticizing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as well as 2,000 U.S. $1 bills, according to a statement from the Fighters for Free North Korea (FFNK) group, which is led by North Korean defector Park Sang-hak.

In a statement, FFNK accused North Korea of “indiscriminately dropping” 15 tons of waste on the South via balloons, calling it “a display of insult and embarrassment for our 50 million citizens.” The South Korean military said that the balloons were “clear violations of international law and seriously threaten the safety of our citizens.”


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Activists from the South have for years sent balloons over the border and floated bottles up the river in an attempt to reach the people in North Korea with leaflets, media and even Choco Pies — while Pyongyang has responded at least twice with airborne trash. The South briefly banned sending propaganda leaflets to the North, but the law was struck down last year.

“We sent them truth and fact, love and medicine — and dollar bills, dramas and trot songs,” FFNK said Thursday in their statement, adding that Kim “has not said a single word of apology” and accusing him of “unprecedented evils.”

FFNK sent 20 balloons with similar contents on May 10, according to a press release on its website, sparking the latest tit-for-tat balloon launches.

Activists admit it is not clear how many — if any — of the balloons and bottles actually reach their destination, let alone influence the thinking of ordinary North Koreans.

John Lie, a sociologist at University of California at Berkeley, who has written about the history of K-pop, attributed the group’s recent actions in part to the belief that previous balloons were successful, “at least gauged by the fact that North Korean authorities are responding to what they consider to be ‘trash’ with their trash,” he wrote in an email.

In recent years, South Korean culture has flourished globally, with K-pop groups selling out stadiums, K-dramas dominating streaming platforms, and K-beauty and K-fashion industries booming. But consuming foreign media is an offense in North Korea, and in 2020, Pyongyang adopted a law specifically cracking down on K-pop and other South Korean cultural content, media in the South reported.

Freedom House, a Washington-based pro-democracy think tank and watchdog, gives North Korea a 3 out of 100 rating for civil liberties and political rights.

Relations between the two countries — which never officially signed a peace treaty after a 1953 armistice ended hostilities in the Korean War — have been especially turbulent in recent months, with Kim earlier this year formally abandoning the idea of peaceful reunification with the South, The Washington Post reported.

And balloons filled with South Korean culture might only serve to highlight that division.

“K-dramas have hooked some North Korean viewers and project the image of wealthy, successful South Korea” compared with the North, Lie said, while “pop culture can have a subversive effect on authoritarian” regimes, sparking crackdowns, such as with jazz in the Soviet Union, he added.

For most South Koreans, K-culture “is not only great in and of itself,” Lie said, “but is also a global brand: the most potent expression of South Korean coolness and greatness.”


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