South Korean police unexpectedly blocked activists from sending pro-democracy leaflets across the border by balloon, after North Korea threatened a 'merciless' retaliation.
Seoul, South Korea
South Korea backed down today in the face of North Korean threats of a “merciless military strike” if activists, mainly North Korean defectors, showed signs of making good on their plans to drop propaganda leaflets on the North.
Activists prepared today to launch balloons equipped with automatic timing devices that would enable them to drop tens of thousands of leaflets along with socks, dollar bills, and candy bars across the North Korean border.
However, the provincial police agency, acting on orders from Seoul, banned all civilian traffic to Imjin-gak (the site of memorials on South Korea's role in the Korean War and a large "Peace Bell" symbolizing the wish for peaceful reunification), about 35 miles north of Seoul, where the activists were gathering, in view of what it said were “safety concerns over North Korean warnings.”
The decision to keep the activists from firing the balloons contrasted with the hands-off policy that the government has previously followed in refusing to stop numerous leaflet drops in recent years. President Lee Myung-bak and other officials have often stated that they are powerless to stop activists from exercising their right as free citizens to make their views known in North Korea.
South Koreans appear sharply divided over the government’s apparent concession to North Korean threats.
“The government fears escalating the whole issue,” says Lee Sang-baek, an investment adviser, attending a conference here on the possibilities of reunification of North and South Korea. “Personally I think that’s too bad. They should not back down this way.”
Lee Sang-baek recognizes, though, that others strongly disagree. “The political opposition would say, ‘Stop doing anything silly',” he says.
A local resident, within artillery range of North Korea, strongly supports the government’s decision. “There’s no reason for angering them unnecessarily,” says Park Joong-gul. “We need to reduce confrontation. We don’t need any incidents.”