When South Korean balloon-lifted leaflets criticizing Kim Jong Un recently landed next to a high school close to North Korea’s border with China, security agents mustered teachers, students and soldiers to bury the fliers — then made them all pledge to keep the incident as a state secret, according to sources in the region.
Launching anti-Kim leaflets into the North by helium balloon across the Demilitarized Zone from South Korea has been a tactic of Pyongyang opponents and human rights groups in the South for decades, but North Korea recently decided to make the fliers a main point of contention in inter-Korean relations.
On Tuesday North Korea destroyed a landmark liaison office with South Korea in a “terrific explosion” — days after the country said it was cutting all communications with Seoul over the anti-Pyongyang leaflets.
Many experts believe that the leaflet drops are merely an excuse that North Korea is using to ratchet up pressure on Seoul and Washington in a renewed drive to gain concessions in stalled denuclearization negotiations. Pyongyang seeks relief from sanctions aimed at depriving it of resources and cash for illicit weapons programs.
The balloon landing last month near a high school in the border province of Ryanggang, however, showed that authorities in North Korea still take the spread of the leaflets as a serious threat.
“In early May, several [leaflets] were found on a hill near Yonhung High School in Hyesan, Ryanggang province,” a resident of the province, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday.
The source said the leaflets “criticized the highest dignity,” using an honorific term to refer to Kim Jong Un.
“The security authorities were put on high alert when soldiers found [the leaflets] and reported them to the provincial security department,” said the source.
The source described the balloons in a manner that matched those used by South Korean civic groups, whose launches usually target the parts of North Korea closest to South Korea. It is rare that balloons reach northern provinces.
“The balloons carrying anti-North Korea leaflets were about 10 meters (33 feet) long, made of a thick transparent vinyl film. They carried leaflets critical of the highest dignity. They were found by school faculty, students and soldiers,” the source said.
Soon after the discovery, several security agents arrived on the scene and took charge of the dozens of people there.
“Members of the provincial security department, who were dispatched late, worked with the commanders of the military units at the scene to build a dense human wall with soldiers, and buried [the leaflets],” the source said.
After the initial damage control measure, the security department turned its eyes to the witnesses.
“They made the soldiers, school faculty, students and residents pledge that they would not disclose any state secrets, then sent them home,” said the source.
On the same day, the result of the investigation was sent to the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] as a Number One report,” added the source, referring to highly-sensitive communications intended to reach Kim Jong Un.
Despite the containment effort, another resident of Ryanggang, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said that news of the balloons had already begun spreading among the people.
“They were saying that a number of goods, which should have been scattered in the southern inland parts of North Korea had flown all the way to the Sino-Korean border,” the second source said.
In addition to denunciations of the Kim family, the balloons carry news that the Pyongyang government withholds from its citizens, as well as gifts, including U.S. dollars or USB flash drives with videos that are banned in North Korea, to advertise freedom and prosperity in the South.
The recent state-sponsored rallies in North Korean cities staged to denounce defectors and refugees in South Korea are an attempt to divert attention from the fact that the exiles have a better life in the South, according to the source.
“I can see why the authorities are criticizing North Korean defectors by holding rallies and demonstrations against South Korea these days. Soldiers and residents are showing keen interest in the lives of North Korean defectors who settled down in South Korea, as they saw a number of goods and leaflets in early May.”
Reported by Saewon Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.