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6 passive-aggressive ways rival Koreas wage their proxy-war

Welcome to the bizarre world of North and South Korea, two countries technically at war for 65 years, fighting in ways you'd never expect.

editorials Updated: Aug 27, 2015 18:23 IST
Joyeeta Biswas
Joyeeta Biswas
Hindustan Times
North and South Korea,US military,Kim Jong Un
South Korean soldiers stand before a checkpoint on the Unification Bridge that leads to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea in Paju on Saturday. (AFP Photo)

When you think of a war being fought between two countries - one nuclear-armed, aggressive and allied with China, the other an economic powerhouse in Asia backed by the US' military might, what do you picture? Guns? Tanks? Fighter jets?

Well, it's time to welcome you to the bizarre world of North and South Korea, two countries technically at war for 65 years, fighting in ways you'd never expect.

Blasting pop music through loudspeakers

Imagine if you'd grown up listening to North Korea's equivalent of music - mostly just paeans to the ruling Kim family - and one day, strains of South Korea's infectious K-pop music drifted over to you, flooding your mind with images of the prosperous life they live on the other side. That's information the regime will never be able to make you unhear.

Which is why, ever since the armistice in 1953, the South has been blasting music, news snippets, weather reports and speeches about the Kim regime's "lies" through loudspeakers well into North Korean territory (although it stopped for a period in between).

And there's nothing that irks North Korea's leaders more, partly because they consider preserving the dignity of the Kim family crucial to maintaining power, and partly because they fear this flow of information from outside could demoralise troops.

It's unclear if many North Koreans are actually influenced by these, but boy do they infuriate the regime, who order soldiers to fire at the loudspeakers, try to drown out the sound with their own broadcasts and, as leader Kim Jong Un did this month, even threaten to wage all-out war if the South doesn't silence its loudspeakers.

Launching balloons

It's not just people and loudspeakers that North Korean soldiers are kept busy firing at - it's also balloons.

Why, you ask?

Because these aren't regular balloons, these are cylindrical contraptions built to carry propaganda leaflets and other items and are launched by South Korean activists hoping they'll land in the hands of commoners across the border.

The activists, many of whom are North Korean defectors, have tried to send over banners and pamphlets trashing Kim Jong Un, bundles of dollar bills, radios and even, recently, thousands of DVDs of 'The Interview' - the Hollywood film depicting Kim's assassination that incensed North Korea to such a degree that it threatened 'merciless countermeasures' and may or may not have provoked it to carry out the subsequent massive Sony Entertainment hack.

While the South maintains it cannot stop the activists from expressing their freedom of speech, its neighbour has often angrily called the balloon launches 'undisguised acts of psychological warfare'.

Hurling colourful insults

South Koreans might favour pop songs and balloons, but their neighbour's weapon of choice is invective.

Don't roll your eyes, this isn't your average unimaginative political name-calling, usually limited to leaders equating each other with Hitler or Voldemort or Satan.

No, the hermit kingdom's insults are much more than that - usually weird, often uncomfortably personal, sometimes deeply misogynistic and always colourful.

South Korean president Park Geun-hye has, for example, at different times been described as a "crafty prostitute", a "lunatic" and a "cold-blooded animal" and US president Barack Obama as her "pimp".

North Koreans have been encouraged to picture the "dirty hairy body of rat-like" former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak being "stabbed with bayonets". And US secretary of state John Kerry has been called "a wolf with a hideous lantern jaw".

Analysts believe that since deploying actual force would almost be suicidal for Kim Jong Un, he must take to rhetoric to express his aggression and display his power within his country. Over the years, the invective has become a handy tool to judge the regime's policy.

The more adjective-rich its press releases, the less inclined it's feeling to reconciliatory measures.

Conducting (and overreacting to) military drills

Every year, South Korea holds joint military drills with the United States, an elaborate exercise in muscle-flexing involving tens of thousands of troops. Officially, the drills are defensive in nature; unofficially, some say, they're a threat to North Korea: behave yourself or we'll attack you together.

Now, a lot of countries hold these kinds of joint drills as a show of strength. But seldom do their opponents react with so much rage every time. North Korea's response to the exercises has varied from threatening to attack Seoul and the White House to artillery bombardment in 2010 that ended up killing four people.

Creating a separate time zone

So far, North Korea has operated in the same time zone as South Korea and Japan. But this month, it announced that all its clocks were to be set back by half an hour.

While the country has described the move as a trimphant break from its Japanese imperialist past, many have pointed out that it makes efforts to reduce differences and unify the two neighbours much harder - which may have been one of the motivating factors. In essence, North Korea has declared itself sovereign, distinct, split from its neighbour over both space and time.

Refusing to operate a joint industrial complex

During a brief period in the late '90s and early 2000's, South Korea decided it was time to put down the stick and extend the carrot northwards.

This was then-president Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy," an effort to engage and repair relations with North Korea that yielded the Kaesong industrial complex set up in the demilitarised zone between the two countries, where North Korean workers would labour in small textile and electronics units supervised by South Korean managers. The North would provide cheap labour, the South would pay it cash.

Well-meant, no doubt, except in times of tension, both sides now use the complex as a bargaining chip, withdrawing workers or managers whenever they want to signal anger.

And every time that happens, both pay a price - Pyongyang loses valuable money it desperately needs, Seoul loses face in front of an electorate clamouring for peace.

This is a satirical piece. Views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Aug 27, 2015 18:11 IST