Skip to content
illustration of a balloon flying over a wall while carrying a trashbag

Illustration by Security Management, iStock

North Korea Launches More Trash Balloons, South to Respond with Propaganda Broadcasts

North Korea has been launching… no, not grenades, but large balloons hauling piles of garbage to the South. In turn, South Korea will begin spraying… no, not bullets, but K-pop over the border.

The Korean peninsula is one of the tensest regions in the world, and while the bizarre tit-for-tat may sound comical, there is always concern that any situation between the nations could escalate quickly.

North Korea first floated balloons carrying large bundles of garbage to the South in May. At the time, North Korea said this was in retaliation for the South sending leaflets, cultural products, and other propaganda into the North using balloons. In 2023, the South Korean courts struck down a law that had criminalized such leafletting actions.

After launching more than 1,000 balloons in that first May send-off, North Korea said it would suspend additional balloon launches unless further provoked. South Korean authorities used hazardous materials teams to assess the debris, which contained standard-fare trash and manure, and determined the threat level to be low. 

More provocation came last week, however, with multiple South Korean activist groups sending balloons North carrying anti-North Korean government pamphlets, as well as thumb drives with K-pop music and South Korean television dramas. That led to another round of several hundred trash balloons from the North over the weekend.

Of perhaps more concern than the dueling balloon launches is South Korea’s action on 4 June to suspend a 2018 hostility-cessation agreement between the two countries—an agreement North Korea had already declared it would no longer honor. Among other prohibitions, the agreement prevented the South from using speakers to blast border areas with propaganda.

“Observers say South Korea was considering restarting frontline propaganda loudspeaker broadcasts,” the Associated Press reported, “a Cold War-style psychological campaign that experts say has stung in rigidly controlled North Korea, whose 26 million people are mostly not allowed access to foreign news.”

NPR reported South Korea has decided to move forward with the broadcasts.

Kim Yo Jung, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, said resumption of the broadcasts would be a “prelude to a very dangerous situation.”

In 2015 when South Korea broadcast propaganda via loudspeaker over the border, North Korea responded with artillery fire to try to silence the speakers. South Korea responded with artillery against the North Korean batteries, marking a relatively rare instance when live fire was exchanged between the two nations, which signed an armistice in 1953 but never completed a peace deal.

While South Korea no doubt views the 30 May firing of ballistic missiles by North Korea with much more alarm than the trash balloons—and the North no doubt views the military exercises between the United States and South Korea with more alarm than propaganda broadcasts—all actions have outsized meaning on the tense peninsula, which sits on a razor’s edge between an uneasy peace and a potentially devastating conflict.