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‘Air raid’ alarm as North Korea sends trash balloons across DMZ

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
May 30, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

At 11:34 p.m. on Tuesday, mobile phones in parts of South Korea’s Gyeonggi province screeched out an alert from authorities warning of an “air raid”, sparking panic among residents living close to one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders.

“Air raid? I panicked because I thought they were talking about some kind of attack,” a resident of the city of Paju who received the alert told Radio Free Asia, referring to the English-language phrase “Air raid preliminary warning” in the alert.

Paju is just south of Panmunjeom, a village on the de facto border between the two Koreas, where for decades the armies of North and South Korea have faced off.

The alert told residents to report any unidentified objects, which turned out to be more than 200 balloons floated over the border from North Korea carrying trash and manure.

Authorities later announced that the phrase “air raid” had been used in error. 

Balloons with trash

North Koreans defectors based in the South and rights activists have for years sent balloons over the border into the North, invariably trying to stir up dissent and opposition to the North Korean state.

The balloons from the South infuriate the North, which regularly demands a stop to them and threatens retaliation.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, or JCS, said on Wednesday that North Korea had sent more than 200 balloons over the border carrying various pieces of trash such as plastic bottles, batteries, shoe parts and even animal dung. The JCS advised residents to report any strange objects and not to touch anything.

Beginning late on Tuesday, the balloons drifted south over various parts of South Korea, as far as the southeastern province of South Gyeongsang, scattering their trash as they came down to earth, the JCS said.

The JCS said the balloons could be dangerous, noting damage to a vehicle and a roof in 2016 caused by North Korean balloons.

“These acts by North Korea clearly violate international law and seriously threaten our people’s safety,” the JCS said. “We sternly warn North Korea to immediately stop its inhumane and vulgar act.”

It added that it would draft safety measures with the police and government, noting that it was closely cooperating with the U.S.-led U.N. Command in charge of overseeing the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.

The latest balloons from the South were floated into the North this month by the Seoul-based Fighters for a Free North Korea. The group said on May 13 it had sent 300,000 leaflets and 2,000 USBs containing K-pop music videos to the North by suspending them from 20 big balloons.

A banner attached to the balloon accused the North’s leader of treachery:  “Kim Jong Un, you are nothing but an unchangeable traitor, an enemy of the Korean people.”

North Korea said on Sunday it would scatter “mounds of wastepaper and filth” over the border areas in a “tit-for-tat action” against the latest anti-Pyongyang leaflets.

Analysts say isolated North Korea fears that outside information could threaten the grip of its leadership. 

The balloons have long been another source of tension between the two Koreas, which are still technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.