(AFP) – Oct 30, 2008
SEOUL (AFP) — A barrage of flimsy plastic leaflets is fuelling tensions along the world's most heavily armed border, as North Korea angrily rejects what it calls a smear campaign against leader Kim Jong-Il.
The leaflets, borne by balloon into the hardline communist state, are not new but lately have touched on an especially taboo subject -- Kim's health.
Kim, 66, is widely thought to have suffered a stroke in mid-August. Japan's Prime Minister Taro Aso said this week he is probably in hospital but still capable of making decisions.
North Korea has threatened to shut down the Seoul-funded Kaesong joint industrial complex -- the most conspicuous symbol of reconciliation -- in protest at the leaflets launched by South Korean activists.
In an unusually strong message Tuesday, the North accused Seoul's spy agency of masterminding the leaflet campaign.
It also claimed South Korea is planning a pre-emptive military strike and threatened to reduce it to "debris" in retaliation.
Undeterred by appeals to stop from the Seoul government and Kaesong businesses, activists Monday released another 100,000 leaflets from fishing boats in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan (East Sea).
The pamphlets repeated claims that Kim is sick and called on North Koreans to topple him.
"All the hard currency earned through the people's sweat and blood ends up in Kim Jong-Il's personal vault," one read.
"Freedom is not for free. Don't let yourselves starve to death but stand up and fight against Kim Jong-Il. Soldiers, turn your rifle barrels towards Dictator Kim."
The leaflets depicted Kim's family tree, claiming he has kept dozens of women as mistresses.
As an incentive for people to risk punishment by picking the leaflets up, US dollar bills or Chinese yuan are attached to some of them.
Seoul's Unification Ministry, which handles cross-border relations, said the government would keep trying to persuade activists to stop the leaflet launches even though there was no law against them.
The two governments waged a cross-border propaganda barrage throughout the Cold War. After their first reconciliation summit in 2000, they agreed to stop.
But Seoul-based private groups, led by defectors from the North and Christians, have continued leaflet drops.
"No matter what the government says, we'll get on with our work," Park Sang-Hak, head of the Fighters for Free North Korea, said tersely.
"We're ready to do it again whenever the wind blows toward the North," the 40-year-old former defector told AFP.
Since 2004, Park's group has been sending up to two million leaflets every year to the North via balloons, complete with timer devices to release them over target areas.
"North Korea finds the leaflets really irritating as they touch on Kim's health," Professor Kim Keun-Shik of Kyungnam University told AFP.
"By taking issue with the dissemination of leaflets, it is building up its case before moving to shut off the Kaesong industrial park and tours to Kaesong," he said.
Relations have been frosty since conservative President Lee Myung-Bak took office in February. He promised a firmer line with the North following a decade of engagement and two summits under his liberal predecessors.
Professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies said Pyongyang's warning must be taken seriously.
"At the military talks on Tuesday, the North apparently sent an ultimatum-like message to the South," Yang said.
"The message is -- unless the South Korean government softens its stance toward the North and explicitly supports inter-Korean (summit) agreements, we will take action."
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