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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 233 (October 25, 2012)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

Tensions between Koreas Heightened with Seoul Group's Floating of Anti-N.K. Leaflets

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea faced a touch-and-go situation on Oct. 22 as military units stepped-up combat readiness along the border over South Korean activist groups' plan to float anti-North Korean leaflets.

   The artillery units of the North Korean army were deployed to firing positions and the barrels of howitzers and self-propelled guns were opened starting in the afternoon of Oct. 21 through the morning of Oct. 22 in order to be ready to fire at any moment.

   Upon North Korea's threat of a military strike, the South Korean military also stepped up combat readiness starting on Oct. 21 by deploying artillery and tank brigades and combat air patrols by F-15K and KF-16 fighters, according to military officials.

   "If (the North) launches attacks, (the South Korean) military will strongly and thoroughly retaliate against the origin of the attacks and their supporting forces under the right of self-defense," said Kim Min-seok, the defense ministry spokesman, in a briefing. "We are closely watching the North Korean military's movements."

   The two Koreas still remain technically at war, as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

   On Oct. 19, North Korea said its army will launch a "merciless military strike" if any move to drop leaflets is detected. South Korea's defense minister reacted swiftly, saying his military is prepared to "completely destroy" the origin of a North Korean attack if it occurs.

   "The moment a minor movement for the scattering is captured in Imjin Pavilion and its vicinity, merciless military strike by the Western Front will be put into practice without warning," the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted the Western Front Command of the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA) as warning in an English-language dispatch.

   Sending such leaflets is "an unpardonable challenge to the army and people of the DPRK (North Korea), and a deliberate act aimed to push the North-South ties to the lowest ebb," the KCNA said, referring to a plan by a group of North Korean defectors living in South Korea to send anti-North campaign leaflets on Oct. 22 from the pavilion, also known as Imjingak, just south of the western inter-Korean border.

   Anti-Pyongyang activist groups here, often composed of North Korean defectors, regularly send balloons carrying anti-North leaflets along with gifts such as U.S. dollar bills over the border to the North as part of their campaign against the dictatorship.

   The KCNA also warned that "South Korean inhabitants at Imjin Pavilion and its surrounding area are requested to evacuate in anticipation of possible damage," proclaiming that Imjingak in the border city of Paju, the location of frequent leaflet sending, would "become targets of direct firing from now."

   The North said it will not overlook such provocative actions, which it said amounts to "undisguised psychological warfare."

   The North Korean threat came a day after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made a surprise visit to the front-line island of Yeonpyeong in the tensely guarded Yellow Sea, which was shelled nearly two years ago by the North.

   Though civic groups in the South have sent anti-Pyongyang leaflets in the past, the socialist state's unusually strong threat of an attack is the first since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un succeeded his father Kim Jong-il last December.

   Pyongyang has condemned the leaflet drop as psychological warfare and an attempt to topple its communist regime, warning it could ignite a war on the Korean Peninsula. In the end, though, the North did not actually launch an attack.

   The activist group's move to send leaflets to the North at Imjingak was blocked by the South Korean police, who banned the entry of South Korean civilians and vehicles from accessing the planned launch site near the Demilitarized Zone.

   Later in the day, however, a group of 10 South Korean activists carried through with their plan to float balloons carrying tens of thousands of anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets across the border into the isolated communist country.

   The activists launched the balloons from South Korea's western border island of Ganghwa after being blocked by South Korean police from accessing their original launch site.

   The two Koreas agreed to suspend activities of psychological warfare, including scattering of leaflets and propaganda broadcasting, along the military demarcation line (MDL) in June 2004.

   The agreement has been virtually scrapped following the North Korean torpedo attack of a South Korean naval vessel and the artillery shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island.

   North Korea also resumed the sending of leaflets to the South. This year North Korea sent leaflets three times denouncing the government's education of soldiers about pro-North Korean elements in the military and condemning South Korea's ruling Saenuri Party.

   Meanwhile, the issue of sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets by civic organizations remains a pending problem for inter-Korean relations and a reasonable solution is urgently needed.

   North Korean defectors living in the South criticized the police for blocking their attempt to send leaflets from Imjingak. A defectors' group which spearheaded the dispersion of anti-Pyongyang leaflets this time said it will continue to send the leaflets in the future, making the issue a bone of contention between the two Koreas.

   Park Sang-hak, the head of the group for the promotion of democratization of North Korea, said it is not understandable that the government blocked their plan only one hour before the start of the event although it had vowed to sternly punish any North Korean provocation. Park said the group will continue the launch of leaflets in the future both openly and secretly.

   A Unification Ministry official said the government has maintained a position that the activist groups should refrain from sending leaflets because it raises tensions between the two Koreas.

   The defectors have argued their move is to improve human rights in North Korea by letting the North Korean residents know the injustices of the country's ruling system.

   Their efforts, however, are also suspected of lacking sincerity. Some experts suspect the activists intentionally try to send leaflets containing radical phrases which would harshly irritate North Korean authorities in order to raise their reputation.

   Concerns are rising over the groups' public launches of anti-North Korea leaflets after the most recent launch heightened military tensions by antagonizing North Korea excessively.

   Experts advised that activist groups, including those composed of defectors, should bear in mind the impact of their moves on inter-Korean relations even though their efforts are aimed at improving human rights conditions in North Korea.

   The dispatch of leaflets to the North is not desirable under any circumstances if it excessively irritates North Korea, heightens military tensions between the two sides and threatens the safety of residents living near the border, they said.

   There is also the view that the government should control directly or indirectly the scattering of anti-North Korea leaflets by civilian organizations by establishing firm regulations for the launches.

   Basically, the civic organizations' launching of leaflets is protected as freedom of expression, but if the activities create military tensions between the two Koreas and spark armed provocations, the government has reason to intervene, they said.