In late February, dozens of helium-filled balloons drifted on southerly winds into North Korea. The seemingly innocuous incident drew a fierce response from Pyongyang, as North Korean officials threatened to target and kill those responsible for releasing the balloons.


The “perpetrators” were members of the South Korean military who were leading a massive propaganda campaign to channel messages denouncing totalitarianism into the country. South Korean military personnel and human rights activists worked together to fill each balloon with thousands of leaflets, cassettes, and video tapes containing unnerving information about President Kim Jong Il’s private life, news of the populist uprisings in the Middle East, and messages drawing attention to their lack of basic freedoms. The absolute lack of civil society in North Korea, however, augments the challenge of conveying a coherent populist message to the people. Further limiting the North Korean people’s exposure to external ideas is Kim Jong Il’s usage of elaborate military posturing to divert the attention of the international community from North Korea’s domestic problems to its hyper-militarized security apparatus.


South Korea’s populist provocations came in the wake of the North Korean military’s shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island last November, as well as its torpedo attack of a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, earlier in the year. The propaganda balloons released leaflets at approximately the same time that nearly 13,000 US troops and 200,000 South Korean forces were due to begin an annual series of joint air, land, and sea military exercises around the Korean peninsula. While these military exercises were certainly not welcomed, Pyongyang’s official news agency responded with particular enmity to the propaganda campaign.


The North Korean government seems to have a profound understanding of the threat that psychological warfare poses to their current regime. One senior South Korean official likened the leaking of information into the country to a virus penetrating its “iron curtain,” behind which there is scarce knowledge of anything besides malnutrition, political persecution, inflated prices, and meager food rations. The currency devaluation that Kim Jung Il implemented in the fall of 2009 was ostensibly an attempt to stimulate a foundering state-run economy. In reality, it resulted in one of the worst economic disasters that the country has experienced since its so-called “Great Famine” of the mid-1990s—a time in which more than 900,000 North Korean citizens are reported to have starved to death. Recent reports from the Bank of Korea in Seoul have indicated that North Korea’s economy is still hurting from the 2009 currency revaluation, as it is reported to have contracted by 0.9 percent in the past year with few signs of recovery at the horizon.


Despite ongoing economic grievances and reports of growing resentment toward Kim Jong Il, there has been a marked lack of social unrest in North Korea. Based on the scanty information available to the outside world, it seems as though all of the elements of social unrest are aligned: widespread hardship, popular anger over the currency revaluation, and political uncertainty stemming from Supreme Leader Kim’s expected installment of his third son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor in 2012. The South Korean military’s revamped propaganda campaign was geared toward taking advantage of these destabilizing elements, as they made a point of disseminating information about the pro-democracy revolts in the Middle East that North Korea’s Central News Agency unsurprisingly overlooked.


While popular resistance against the government of North Korea is a distant prospect, it is worth noting that the country’s self-imposed isolation has, in recent years, been punctuated by the spread of cell phones and DVD players within Pyongyang. Citizens marginally exposed to the outside world have developed an incomplete awareness of how poor and backward their country has become. For the first time in the history of the country, for example, relatively “privileged” North Koreans living in the country’s capital have gained knowledge of re-escalating tensions between North and South Korea. However, North Koreans’ access to information has been incomplete at best, and their marked lack of reliable channels of communication with the outside world, coupled with crippling economic woes, has left the citizenry as powerless as ever.


By contrast, the ongoing propaganda campaigns launched by the South Korean military and the Arab Spring in the Middle East have emboldened North Korea’s authoritarian regime in its attempts to overhaul its security apparatus. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has determined North Korea to be a full-fledged nuclear power since April of 2009. Since then, its foreign policy has revolved around brinksmanship, diverting the attention of the international community from the deprivation of the citizenry to the flamboyant posturing of the country’s leader. Kim Jong Il’s nuclear ambitions and largely unchecked belligerence toward South Korea has had a diversionary effect on the international community. Discussions on North Korea’s abuse of human rights have, in recent years, been overrun by the six-party talks (a group consisting of North and South Korea, China, the United States, Russia, and Japan) concerned solely with Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.


In spite of South Korea’s ongoing propaganda efforts geared toward subverting North Korea’s authoritarian stronghold, it is difficult to predict the direction that the country is headed, especially given the abrupt emergence of Kim Jong Il’s heir apparent. While North Korea has been caricatured by the international community as a belligerent state with a psychotic leader, its severely impoverished population wallows in relative obscurity. Kim Jong Il’s carefully crafted cult of personality continues to overshadow the economic stagnation and the political persecution that is so pervasive in North Korea. Ultimately, however, the international community needs to look beyond North Korea’s security apparatus and adopt a stance toward the country that transcends the military fray—like the activists’ propaganda balloons that drifted above and across the Military Demarcation Line.