During each period of tension along the demilitarized zone people inevitably look to the South and the United States to see what might have been done to contribute to the rise of tensions. In the case of the most recent tensions, the focus has turned to loudspeakers and balloons. South Korean activists, often Christian and often defectors, fill balloons with propaganda materials, movies and clothes. Those balloons are then launched across the border. Relations between the organizations involved are often frosty as those involved have a range of political views.
Residents near the border, where the balloons are often launched from, occasionally scuffle with the activists. The people who live in the border town fear North Korean reprisals and Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened “merciless retaliatory strikes” against the launches. As a result, these activities exist within the context of violence and deterrence that exists along the border.
After two South Korean soldiers were wounded by landmines that had been recently placed on their patrol route, Seoul decided to return to using loudspeakers to blast anti-regime messages into the North. The North then fired a rocket at the speakers and the South responded with artillery.
Commentators then draw a line of escalation between these decisions and the resulting moves on the part of the North. The conclusion of some analysts and residents in the area, is that the answer is to stop. Such a view is highly intuitive but also fundamentally misguided.
The loudspeakers and balloons represent a fraction of the outside media that enters North Korea. Most media enters the country via the border with China. The underground economy is the main economy and the same channels that deliver food and clothing also deliver outside media. When I visited a market in the Rason Special Economic Zone my minder proudly proclaimed “you can buy anything here, except nuclear weapons.” Even if they wanted to, North simply could not close those markets down, as the economy not only depends on the activity there but significant elements of the local administration are involved. There are even reports of the soldiers themselves leaving their positions to become traders in the markets. When women can yell at them in public, what kind of totalitarian authority do they have?
This points to the reality that the DMZ is a sideshow when it comes to real change within the country. The North tolerates significant amounts of underground trade across the China border but threatens to unleash “merciless retaliation” on activists sending balloons. There is an inconsistency here. Far from actions that provoke the North, balloons and loudspeakers are elements that Pyongyang seizes when it wants to escalate tensions.
The same is true of military drills, human rights investigations, sanctions on its nuclear program and a plethora of other topics. Suggestions that activists stop launching balloons or that the United States stop military exercises may sound reasonable in isolation, but they represent a strategy that is unworkable as a holistic approach. The North finds reasons to issue threats mostly because it’s looking for them. As such, discussing each thing they are having conniptions over as part of a natural escalation is not reconcilable with the reality that the North makes issues of events more so than it takes issue with events.
Pyongyang raises tensions on the border generally because it wants to do so. One of the more interesting things about standing on the Northern side of the DMZ is how relaxed the location is. The soldiers of the Korean People’s Army generally know when to be alert. They have this ease, not just as a way of thumbing their nose at the power positioned against them but also because they know that if something is to happen on the border, it will be because they caused it to happen.
If the South wants to negotiate this reality, it has a number of strategies available. The first is simply to fall back on deterrence, give no ground, and negotiate over nothing. The North’s actions are primarily aimed at keeping the regime in power, so they can be counted on to avoid national suicide during periods of heightened tension. Second, the South could trade these activities as an element in defusing conflict. Pyongyang has to be one of the most bribable countries on Earth. The strategy of defusing the activities targeted by the North for its threats is the least viable option. It assumes that the North is not looking to find an issue, which is simply not the case. It also renders the largest payoff to the aggression of the three strategies and as such should be seen as the least preferable.
Robert Potter is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland. Previously he was a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University and took part in a research program in North Korea and China in 2013.