SEOUL — North Korean state media claimed this week that “the whole country is ablaze with fury” over a few small but determined groups of South Korean activists who fly anti-Pyongyang leaflets over the two Koreas’ shared border.
The message signaled an end to two years of rapprochement with South Korea. Pyongyang has cut off all communication and labeled Seoul “an enemy.” Shortly after North Korea’s official news agency reported the decision, South Korean officials said that routine phone calls to the North via a hotline have gone unanswered.
The activists float balloons filled with leaflets northward and have been doing so for years. Pyongyang did not point to any new developments in explaining its latest move, leading to speculation that increasingly dire conditions in the North, brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and international sanctions, may be why it has chosen this moment to designate South Korea as a foe.
When times get tough North Korea customarily calls on its people to come together and work harder to overcome adversity, blaming outside forces for any problems. This time around, Pyongyang may be casting the South as an antagonist to rally its struggling citizens.
There are growing signs that conditions in the North are worsening. This week, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea sounded the alarm over the effect of the border closure on vulnerable groups in the country.
“People in the border areas in the North have lost their income from commercial activities. The situation inland could be worse. There have been reports of an increase of homeless people, including street children, in large cities,” the special rapporteur said in a statement.
Also this week, a representative of the UN’s World Food Programme told reporters that more than 10 million North Koreans are in need of humanitarian aid.
North Korea’s border with China — the conduit for much of the country’s trade — has been closed since January to keep out the coronavirus.
The groups that launch the balloons, which have North Korean defectors as members, have long been an annoyance to Pyongyang and a subject of debate in the South.
The left-leaning administration of President Moon Jae-in said Wednesday the government would file a legal complaint against groups that carry out such launches. The government decries them as a needless provocation that raises the risk of military clashes along the border. In 2014, North Korean soldiers responded to one balloon launch with gunfire, although no casualties or injuries were reported.
“The government should find a way to stop them as soon as possible,” the left-wing Kyungyang Newspaper wrote in an editorial on Wednesday, adding, “It is questionable whether these leaflets warrant protection under the premise of freedom of expression,” as they contain messages intended to foment North Korea’s collapse as well as images that crudely insult the North’s leadership.
The balloons also contain U.S. dollar bills and memory sticks containing South Korean TV dramas. The groups behind the launches say they are intended to break the North Korean government’s restrictions on the flow of information and share the truth about the country, such as how leader Kim Jong Un spends millions on luxury goods while most North Koreans live in poverty.
The Chosun Ilbo, a conservative South Korean newspaper, argued in an editorial on Wednesday that the leaflet launches offer a distraction for North Koreans as sanctions and the coronavirus outbreak worsen living conditions even for the elite that the Kim regime depends on for support.
“As life is getting difficult, even for people in Pyongyang, raising tensions with South Korea could be a good method [for the North] right now,” the editorial stated, speculating that Pyongyang may be trying to push the Moon administration to pass legislation banning the leaflet launches.
Human rights groups focused on North Korea argue that there is no legal basis to prohibit the launches, and that the Moon administration is bending to North Korea’s will.
“Banning the launches is a violation of North Korean people’s right to information. Also, for North Korean defectors who live here, it amounts to suppression of our rights as activists and citizens of a liberal democracy,” Kim Tae-hee, head of the Coalition of North Korean Refugees for Freedom and Human Rights, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
While the North has not reported any cases of the novel coronavirus, it appears to be bracing for an outbreak.
“They are building treatment capacity in case of a surge of COVID-19 cases. For example, they are rapidly building the new Pyongyang General Hospital and opened a medical oxygen plant,” said Kee Park, director of the Korea Health Policy Project and lecturer on global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School.
“The combination of the border closure and international sanctions has also impeded the efforts of outside humanitarian groups seeking to deliver aid,” added Kee, who has made more than 20 trips to North Korea, working alongside North Korean doctors and trying to improve the country’s health system.
The more disconcerting possibility is that North Korea faces an economic and food emergency that puts the survival of a large portion of the country’s population at risk.
“The current sanctions have replicated the conditions that caused famine in the 1990s. North Korea isn’t an oil-producing country and the comprehensive sanctions have left them unable to import things like fertilizer, pesticides and fuel for equipment,” said Hazel Smith, a professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
Smith describes day-to-day life in North Korea as “a literal struggle for the physical survival of families and communities.”