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Why police are hunting for owner of 196 lapel pins in South Korea

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Kim Hong-Ji/AP

(Read caption) North Korean soldiers keep a watch toward the south as it rains during a ceremony marking the 63rd anniversary of the signing of the Korean War cease-fire armistice agreement at the truce village of Panmunjom, South Korea on July 27, 2016. South Korean police are currently investigating Kim Jong Il lapel pins found scattered near the airport on Thursday.

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Stray lapel pins may not seem to need more than sweeping up, but in South Korea, 196 lapel pins stamped with the image of late North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il found near South Korea’s largest airport, Incheon, have prompted an official police investigation.

Police analyzed security camera footage Thursday to find the origin of pins found in the flowerbed of a hotel close to the airport, according to a local police officer who spoke to CBS News, but requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.

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Infamous propaganda balloons floated across the border by North Korea could have been the culprit, South Korean media said. Both countries have used balloons to send messages across the DMZ in the past. South Korea has used balloons to send propaganda pamphlets decrying human rights abuses and espousing democracy, and basic items such as candy and socks to North Korea.

These floating propaganda deliveries, however, never go unnoticed by either government. After hearing about South Korean plans to send leaflets via balloons, North Korea threatened a “merciless military strike.” Activists were planning on deploying tens of thousands of leaflets, socks, dollar bills, and candy bars, but were thwarted by the provincial police agency because of its self-proclaimed “safety concerns over North Korean warnings.”

Similarly, the image of a North Korean dictator is no laughing matter in South Korea, even if it’s found on a lapel pin. Possession of those lapel pins is punishable by up to seven years in prison, according to CBS.

The lapel pin is not a banal choice of object either. Under its authoritarian government, all North Korean adults must must wear lapel pins carrying the images of Kim Jong Il and/or his father Kim Il Sung.

This event is part of a series of recent tactics from both sides to ruffle and arouse the other. After North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January, the two countries have been engaging in psychological warfare similar to that which took place during the cold war. Seoul has blared anti-North broadcasts and K-Pop songs using loudspeakers and Pyongyang has responded with border broadcasts of its own and anti-South leaflets carried in balloons.

Earlier this week, North Korea dropped propaganda leaflets in plastic bags into the Han River, which flows northwestward through South Korea toward the border. The bags were found near the capital, Seoul, and threatened the city with attacks by intermediate-range Musudan missiles, according to UPI.  

North Korea’s threats are “aimed at instigating division between people in the South,” Park Joong-gul told Donald Kirk, correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.

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The two countries are separated by the most fortified border in the world – and a 1953 armistice – but such seemingly innocuous items as lapel pins are intended to keep tensions high.