South Korean police yesterday blocked activists from sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border with North Korea, which had threatened to respond with a “merciless” military strike.
The decision to shut down the propaganda exercise was an unusual one and reflected, analysts said, Seoul’s desire to avoid any destabilizing clash ahead of South Korea’s presidential election in December.
North Korean defectors who had planned to launch balloons carrying 200,000 propaganda leaflets across the heavily militarized border were infuriated by the move, accusing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak of capitulating to threats.
There were some minor scuffles as the activists sought to push through a large roadblock of police vehicles and security personnel set up about 4km south of the launch site.
“This event has been authorized by the government. This is ridiculous,” said Park Sang-hak, one of the organizers.
“We are not here to provoke a conflict, but to convey the truth to North Koreans. President Lee will be remembered as a cowardly leader who succumbed to North Korean threats,” Park said.
Local police officials said the decision had been dictated by “security concerns” after the North Korean army threatened a “merciless military strike” if the event went ahead and told local residents to evacuate.
“The surrounding area will become targets of direct firing,” the Korean People’s Army said in a statement on Friday.
North Korea has threatened strikes in the past, but Friday’s statement was unusually strong, with its specific naming of the time and location, coupled with the evacuation warning.
It was also the first time such a precise threat had been made under North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who took over the reins of the state after the death in December last year of his father, former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Troops in the South had been placed on high alert and Yonhap news agency reported the deployment of additional artillery and tank units to forward border positions.
It was not the first time the South has moved to prevent propaganda exercises, but yesterday’s action was unusually forceful in stopping the activists going anywhere near the border area.
Lee has taken a hard line with North Korea during his five years in office, and the decision to ban yesterday’s event took some by surprise.
“Stability is the No. 1 priority for Seoul right now,” said University of North Korean Studies professor Yang Moo-jin said, citing the proximity of December’s presidential poll as a likely factor.
“I think the president felt that if he let tensions further escalate, he would see his political legacy tarnished at the end of his term and be blamed for leaving a diplomatic burden on the incoming administration,” Yang said.