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South Korea to suspend peace deal with Pyongyang over trash-carrying balloons

An officer wearing protective gear collects the trash from a balloon presumably sent by North Korea, in Siheung, South Korea, 2 June 2024
An officer wearing protective gear collects the trash from a balloon presumably sent by North Korea, in Siheung, South Korea, 2 June 2024 Copyright Associated Press
Copyright Associated Press
By Euronews with AP
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Seoul announced Monday it would suspend a rapprochement deal with North Korea to punish it over its launches of trash-carrying balloons, even after Pyongyang said it would halt its balloon campaign.

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South Korea’s presidential national security council decided to suspend a 2018 inter-Korean agreement aimed at easing frontline animosities until mutual trust between the two Koreas is restored, according to the presidential office.

The security council said on Monday the suspension would allow South Korea to resume military drills near the border with North Korea and take effective, immediate responses to provocations by Pyongyang.

A proposal on the suspension will be introduced at the Cabinet Council on Tuesday for approval.

The decision was made after North Korea flew hundreds of balloons to drop trash and manure on South Korea for several days in a row in an angry reaction against previous South Korean civilian leafleting campaigns.

On Sunday, Seoul said it would take “unbearable” retaliatory steps in response before Pyongyang abruptly announced it would stop flying balloons across the border.

The trash from a balloon presumably sent by North Korea, is seen behind police tape in Incheon, 2 June 2024
The trash from a balloon presumably sent by North Korea, is seen behind police tape in Incheon, 2 June 2024AP/AP

Experts say South Korea needs the deal's suspension to restart blasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts, K-pop songs and outside news from border loudspeakers. They say such broadcasts have previously stung in the rigidly controlled North, where most of its 26 million people are not allowed official access to foreign news.

The 2018 agreement, reached during a brief period of reconciliation between then-liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, requires the Koreas to cease all hostile acts against each other, including propaganda broadcasts and leafleting campaigns.

But the accord doesn’t clearly state civilian leafleting should also be banned. That has allowed South Korean activists to continue to fly balloons to drop anti-Pyongyang leaflets, USB sticks with South Korean dramas and world news, and US dollars in North Korea.

Enraged over such leafleting campaigns, North Korea has previously fired at incoming balloons and destroyed a South Korean-built, unoccupied inter-Korean liaison office in the North.

Continuation of existing tensions

The 2018 deal has already been in danger of collapsing in recent times. Tension spiked after North Korea's spy satellite launch last November prompted both Koreas to take steps in breach of the accord — South Korea resuming frontline aerial surveillance and North Korea restoring border guard posts.

Since last Tuesday, a total of about 1,000 North Korean balloons carrying manure, cigarette butts, scraps of cloth and waste paper have been discovered in various parts of South Korea. No hazardous substances were found, according to South Korea's military.

On Sunday night, Kim Kang Il, a North Korean vice defence minister, said the North would stop its balloon campaign because it left the South Koreans with “enough experience of how much unpleasant they feel”. He said North Korea would fly balloons again if South Korean activists restarted their own balloon activities.

Experts say North Korea’s balloon campaign, reportedly the first of its kind in seven years, is meant to trigger a divide in South Korea over its current conservative government's tough policy on the North.

Since 2022, North Korea has dramatically ramped up its weapons tests in what analysts call an attempt to bolster its nuclear capability and increase its leverage in future diplomacy with the US.

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