South Korea's K-pop songs could feature in propaganda broadcasts to North

South Korean boy band Big Bang during the Celebrate SG50 countdown show at The Float@Marina Bay.
South Korean boy band Big Bang during the Celebrate SG50 countdown show at The Float@Marina Bay. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - With Kim Jong Un turning up the heat with North Korea's fourth nuclear test, South Korea will respond Friday by pumping up the volume. Literally.

From noon on North Korean leader Kim's birthday, South Korea plans to fire up loudspeakers along the heavily fortified border and resume the propaganda blasts that brought the reclusive regime to a war footing in August - and then to the negotiating table. Dropping leaflets into Kim's "front yard" is also an option, according to one lawmaker.

While years of United Nations sanctions and other penalties have failed to bring Kim to heel, one thing that can get under his skin is broadcasts over the demilitarised zone of South Korean ballads and rap music, a genre known as K-pop. The speakers have been used only once in the past decade, for part of August in retaliation for the maiming of two South Korean soldiers by DMZ mines.

That spat escalated into what North Korea called a "semi- state of war" that was cooled by marathon talks at a border village where Kim's officials agreed to halt the mobilization of forces. One condition was that Seoul turned the speakers off.

"Kim Jong Un isn't your typical dictator. He's a god in North Korea, and propaganda broadcasts raise questions among North Koreans about that," said Park Chang Kwon, a senior research fellow at the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. "Broadcasts from South Korea can reach deep and far into North Korea's society, imbuing the minds of its people with the images of a free nation and hurting the oppressive personality cult."

SANCTIONS, MISSILES

The broadcasts are a low-tech response to Kim's saber- rattling, compared with options like the tightening of sanctions on the isolated regime, South Korea developing its own missile defense system or potentially a beefing up of the US military presence south of the border.

In parliament on Thursday (Jan 7), Defense Minister Han Min Koo said that North Korea's detonation of what it claims to be a hydrogen bomb constitutes an "abnormal situation." His words carry significance as the late August pact that ended the standoff can be annulled under such circumstances. Which means the loudspeakers can be turned back on.

The broadcasts challenge Kim's monopoly on information. Speakers have been set up at 11 locations along the border and play messages - lasting three to four hours - several times a day, according to South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper. They are played at random times to prevent the North from drowning them out with their own broadcasts.

'BIG BANG'

The bursts range from K-Pop and recordings of casual conversations to discussions about the importance of human rights and the lives of South Korea's middle class, according to the defense ministry in Seoul. Among the songs that rang out across the DMZ in August were a ballad called "Heart" by female singer IU, and electro-rap song "Bang Bang Bang" by a boy band called Big Bang.

In Oct 2014, North Korea shot at balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang leaflets, and has threatened artillery attacks against activists flying such materials over the border.

The loudspeaker move could yet backfire, given the level to which the propaganda irritates the regime.

"The resumption of loudspeaker broadcasts may emotionally provoke the North Korean military sensitive to criticism of the 'supreme dignity,' rather than help resolve the nuclear issue," Cheong Seong Chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, said by text message.

With Kim's birthday - he is believed to be in his early thirties - falling on the day of the new broadcasts, "North Korea may react in an ultra-strong way to this decision by South Korea, viewing it as an act of ruining a national party."