Early last month, when North Korea called South Korean President Lee Myung-bak an "impostor," a "traitor" and an "American running dog," the verbal barbs sounded all too familiar to Jin Yong-seon. He has a museum filled with them.
In his Remembrance Museum in this former mining town about 150km east of Seoul, Jin is exhibiting 700 samples of what he calls "paper bombs," the leaflets North and South Korea fired at each other from the Korean War to 2000, when reconciliation efforts prompted a ceasefire in the propaganda battle.
In one North Korean leaflet displayed at Jin's museum, a faked photograph that was pieced together depicts a former South Korean president in a bedroom tryst with a coquettish actress over the caption, "Kim Young-sam, the libertine." Another leaflet gives a cartoon rendition of Kim's predecessor, Roh Tae-woo, kneeling to take orders from James R. Lilley, the US ambassador from 1986 to 1989.
"When I was a kid, we found these leaflets falling like drizzle in the hills around here," said Jin, 44. "If we found them, we were supposed to report them to the police station. We got comic books, pencils or sweets as a reward."
In an age when there was no Internet and both sides jammed each other's radio signals, flying leaflets across the border by plane or balloon was the surest way to deliver thought bombs deep into enemy territory. South Korea's leaflets advertised its growing affluence, while the North needled the South as seeking protection from the "imperialist" US military.
Both sides promised defectors cash, houses, medals and women.
Jin, a former English teacher, opened his 200m2 museum in an abandoned school in 2005 to help lure tourists to his hometown, Chongson, once a leading mining center but now largely forgotten. In keeping, perhaps, with the town's decline, Jin collects and displays everyday items from the recent past that are now fast disappearing from people's memories: old-fashioned toys, playing cards, record albums - and propaganda leaflets.
He bought the leaflets from former police officers - some of the only people allowed to keep them during the Cold War - as well as from herb gatherers who sometimes still find old fliers buried under leaves and from other collectors who advertise on the Internet.
Jin called the leaflet exhibition, which opened last month, "Memories of Propaganda." It also includes some leaflets dropped by the US during the war. Historians estimate that US aircraft scattered 2.5 billion leaflets.
As it turned out, North Korea provided a timely example of what the exhibition is all about. Just as Jin opened the three-month show, North Korea ended an eight-year suspension of cross-border invective, launching a salvo at the newly inaugurated Lee, who had promised to take a tougher stance against North Korea.
"Even the steamed head of a dead cow would burst out laughing at him - in fact, laughing so hard that its muzzle would break," the North's state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun said, belittling Lee's pledge not to deliver economic aid to the North until it abandoned its nuclear weapons. "He should blow his own dirty nose before worrying about somebody else's problem."
North Korean propagandists often use Korean proverbs or folklore characters when scorning an enemy; the cow comment is based on an old Korean saying. A few years ago when Washington criticized its nuclear weapons program, North Korea dismissed the complaint as inconsequential with another old saying: "The dog barks, but the caravan continues."
When the leaders of the two Koreas held their first summit meeting, in 2000, they agreed to suspend the slander. The North continued to criticize the South, but in relatively mild terms. It remains unclear whether the recent strident attacks against Lee represent an isolated fit of anger or the resumption of the war of words.
During a recent tour of the museum, Jin said the leaflets showed how North Korea used language "as a tool of violence," adding, "They capture the Cold War so well."
So do the South Korean leaflets, which present stark choices. One shows Communist soldiers being shot as they try to invade the South. Others boast of the miracles of capitalism, showing South Koreans vacationing on beaches and trumpeting the number of cars produced in the South.
The leaflets did not always produce the intended effect, however.
"In my case, the violent language of North Korean leaflets made a real anti-Communist out of me," Jin said.
Lee Min-bok, a North Korean scientist who defected to the South in 1995, said he had been shocked by a picture of a naked woman in a South Korean leaflet that he saw while still in the North.
"I blushed," he said. "You would never see such a thing in North Korea. But it also reinforced our indoctrination that South Koreans were depraved capitalists."
Still, the shock was not enough to keep him from heading south with thousands of other North Koreans fleeing famine and political repression.
By the time the two governments agreed to switch off their propaganda radios and ground their balloons in 2000, South Korea had significantly changed; newly self-confident, it had already given up other Cold War practices. While North Korea still fixes all radios so that people can receive only government broadcasts, the South lifted its ban on listening to Communist broadcasts in the late 1990s.
Leaflet drops from the South continue, but now they are the work of individuals. Some are sent by balloon by Lee Min-bok and other North Korean defectors, whose leaflets contain a US$1 bill and biting criticism of the economic failures of Kim Jong-il's government. Others are sent by Christians who want to attract converts.
Despite the new leaflets from individuals, the old ones have gained a certain status. Jin said propaganda leaflets from the old days had become collector's items, trading for up to US$200 apiece. Because it was illegal to possess them, they are in short supply.
"They are to Koreans what chips of the demolished Berlin Wall are to Germans," he said. "They are the debris of the Cold War."
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