South Korean Activists Opposed to Inciting the North Brawl With Group Launching Anti-Kim Leaflets

South Korean activists clash near the DMZ as a North Korean defector attempts to launch leaflet balloons against Kim Jong Il. Video by Blaine Harden/The Washington Post
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

PAJU, South Korea, Dec. 2 -- Park Sang Hak, a North Korean defector, launches balloons bound for his homeland. They carry leaflets accusing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il of being a drinker of pricey wine, a seducer of other men's wives, a murderer, a slaveholder, a dictator and "the devil."

The South Korean government says it wishes Park wouldn't rain all this provocation on a heavily armed neighbor, but it says it is powerless to stop him. So about the only thing that usually stops Park's balloons is a wind that won't blow north.

But on Tuesday morning here at Paju, near the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas, Park and his compatriots ran into a bunch of South Korean activists willing to fight to keep the balloons on the ground. Park's anti-Kim leaflets, they shouted, were a threat to peace on the Korean Peninsula.

A balloon-driven rumble broke out. Scores of police struggled to keep it from turning into a full-blown riot. Before it was over, Park kicked one of the counter-protesters squarely in the head -- a blow that sounded like a bat whacking a hardball. He spat on several others who were trying to rip apart bags of leaflets. He pulled a tear-gas revolver from his jacket, and fired it into the air before police grabbed it.

In the end, Park's group managed to launch just one of its 10 balloons. Thousands of leaflets were torn from bags and spilled onto the ground.

Ballooning in the Korean borderlands, it seems, has become a contact sport.

Leaflets dropped this fall in the North have infuriated the government there, which is believed to have become particularly sensitive to personal attacks aimed at Kim since the stroke he reportedly suffered in August and the subsequent firestorm of speculation about his mental and physical competence.

The leaflets have been an aggravating factor in the North's unusually belligerent behavior this fall toward the government of South Korea. Effective this week, the North drastically cut access for South Koreans working at the Kaesong industrial complex, located just north of the border.

The restrictions slash the number of South Koreans permitted to stay in the factory complex, from 4,200 to 880. The North has also suspended cross-border train service and halted nearly all tourist access across the border.

Leaflets falling from the sky have added fuel to a fire that began to burn when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in February and pledged to reverse a 10-year-old policy of giving substantial and largely unconditional aid to the North.

Lee halted the South's annual massive shipment of free fertilizer to the impoverished North, which suffers from chronic food shortages. He has also declined to move ahead on cross-border economic projects -- which had been negotiated with Kim by Lee's predecessors -- until the North makes progress on nuclear disarmament and human rights.

North Korea, in reaction, claims that the South is engaged in a "racket of confrontation" that goes "beyond the danger level, despite repeated warnings."

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