Won Gon Park, Chair of the EAI North Korea Studies Center, assesses that North Korea's trash balloon campaigns are a direct response to South Korean leaflets that challenge the legitimacy of Kim Jong Un's claim to the "Paektu Bloodline." Additionally, Park points out that North Korea's decision to launch 10 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) simultaneously was a demonstration of its military capabilities against South Korea and the U.S., especially following a joint military exercise that included undetectable stealth jets. However, Park notes that these balloons are not a security risk for South Korea, and the KN-25 missiles are insufficient to challenge the air superiority of the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

 


 

TRANSCRIPT (Subtitles)

 

Today, I would like to talk about some unusual provocations by North Korea in May. One was the trash balloon, and the other was the simultaneous launch of about 10 short-range ballistic missiles. North Korea has never done these types of provocations before. I'll explain North Korea’s motivation behind these actions and share my analysis.

 

Q1. 3 Warnings DRPK Made to ROK Before Launching Trash Balloons

 

First, on May 25th, North Korean vice defense minister Kim Kang Il gave a speech. He warned of three main issues: the air power buildup by South Korea and the U.S., their surveillance and reconnaissance, and their joint air exercises. DPRK always defines these issues as aggressive actions that builds military tension on the Korean Peninsula.

 

The second provocation is the leaflet issue. They raised the issue of North Korean human rights organizations in South Korea sending these to North Korea. They described such action as “Republic of Korea's despicable psychological maneuvers emerging.” North Korean media now openly uses the term ‘Republic of Korea,' which was unusual before. Now, as you know, at the beginning of the year, Kim Jong-un declared that the relationship between North Korea and South Korea was belligerent. He eliminated the concept of one nation and instead referred to it as the Republic of Korea.

 

The third claim is the increased frequency of maritime border violations. They once again raised the matter of our legitimate reconnaissance activities near the NLL and ships navigating in our waters.

 

DPRK has always claimed that the leaflets we send them are trash and filth, warning that they will respond to ROK's 'trash' campaigns. They also stated that a lot of trash and filth would be spread in the central area of ROK and its border, making us experience the effort required to collect them. These are what vice minister Kim said on May 25.

 

Q2. Motivations Behind DPRK’s Trash Balloon Campaign

 

And then, as you all know, they actually launched the real trash balloons.We were quite flabbergasted. Because we were unable to accurately discern the contents of the balloons, the government issued warnings and collected them. The balloons were actually filled with literal filth, including feces and old shoes.

 

These latex balloons have two parts and are resistant to tearing. North Korean balloons lack a timer for detonation and GPS, unlike the balloons we send from ROK, which can be tracked by location. It seems North Korean balloons do not have GPS. But anyway, it is true that these balloons are carried by the wind. For example, when the balloons are launched in the western area of DPRK, they come down widespread in the South.

 

What is important is why did North Korea send the trash balloons at this time. Since these balloons are carried by the wind, South Korean groups started sending their balloons in April. During winter, the wind blows from south to north, preventing the balloons from being carried away properly. It is well-known that certain groups begin sending these leaflets in April, prompting North Korea's response. This ultimately explains why they started sending trash balloons.

 

Then why is North Korea so sensitive about the leaflets that ROK is sending? From North Korea’s perspective, this poses a serious threat to the regime. Contrary to North Korea’s claims, the balloons we send to DPRK do not contain any trash. Instead, they are filled with daily necessities like Tylenol during the COVID pandemic, one-dollar bills, rice, and USBs with South Korean cultural content. According to interviews with the groups sending these balloons, they say the products are sent on humanitarian terms. Some of the balloons contain progaganda leaflets, but many simply describe the world outside North Korea.

 

What DPRK finds most sensitive is the secret of Kim Jong Un’s birth. As some of you may know, DPRK’s “Paektu bloodline” is traditionally handed down to the oldest son, a concept rooted in Confucianism. Kim Jong Il, for example, was the firstborn son. However, Kim Jong Un is not the oldest; Kim Jong Il’s firstborn was Kim Jong Nam, whom Kim Jong Un is known to have essentially murdered. He is, in fact, the second son of Kim Jong Il’s third wife.

 

While this is a well-known fact in South Korea, the majority of DPRK citizens are unaware of it. These leaflets revealing Kim Jong Un’s birth secret fundamentally challenge the legitimacy of the Paektu bloodline. And because this is a fundamental threat to their highest authority, they are reacting so sensitively.

 

You may recall that in June 2020, North Korea responded militarily to this issue. At that time, Kim Yo Jong used the occasion of South Korean organizations sending leaflets to openly criticize the South and even blew up the Liaison Office in Kaesong shortly after.

 

Former President Moon Jae-in and several ministries, including the Unification Ministry, publicly stated they would resolve this problem. Resolving the problem essentially meant prohibiting the sending of leaflets to DPRK. This eventually led to the passage of the so-called Anti-Leaflet Law in the National Assembly. Despite the ROK government's proactive efforts, DPRK ignored all this and escalated the tension to an extreme level.

 

Later, around June 16, North Korea announced four military actions. These included deploying regiment-level troops in the Kaesong Complex and Mount Kumgang. They planned to militarize these areas, which were the symbols of ROK-DPRK joint ventures. The second action was restoring the guard posts in the DMZ, which had been eliminated following the Pyongyang Declaration. North Korea rearmed them after backing out of the September 19 military agreement. The third action involved raising the overall alert level of the front lines to level 1, indicating a very high state of readiness and danger. Finally, they said they would open areas within DPRK that are favorable for launching balloons and would guarantee that North Koreans can engage in this balloon-launching struggle militarily. In other words, they declared that they would send these balloons to ROK.

 

However, these four military actions of 2020 were put on hold by Kim Jong Un during the Central Military Commission plenary meeting six days later. So, while this wasn’t materialized, the restoration of guard posts did happen. Now, this time, they launched trash balloons. As I mentioned before, this is a response to our leaflets sent in April, reflecting how sensitive DPRK is about this.

 

The trash balloons came down on the night of May 28, and Kim Yo Jong made an address the following day. In this address, we find some startling content. The regime justified its actions by claiming it was 'North Korean-style freedom of expression.' In ROK’s case, it’s not the government that sent out the leaflets to North Korea, right? ROK, as a liberal democracy that guarantees freedom of expression, cannot block individual organizations within the country from sending leaflets. In principle, it cannot be prohibited.

 

North Korea's claims about protecting freedom of expression have many fundamental problems. Firstly, freedom of expression does not mean government-led expression. Freedom of expression essentially guarantees the people’s freedom of speech. So South Korea is in a situation where it must allow the sending of various information to North Korea through the freedom of speech of South Koreans who care about human rights and seek to help North Korea on humanitarian grounds.

 

But in the case of North Korea, the trash and filth they are sending is an action taken by the regime. The Reconnaissance General Bureau, responsible for matters like military actions against ROK, has taken the lead in this. So it’s obviously led by the government, with Kim Yo Jong, the Deputy Director of the Workers’ Party of Korea, involved. The government made this statement, and Vice Minister Kim, whom I mentioned earlier, is also a government official. It doesn’t make sense for the government to lead in expressing freedom of expression.

 

While it is concerning for ROK to receive these trash balloons, it seems that North Korea is making a 'desperate measure.' Essentially, this shows that the leaflets threaten regime stability, but because they cannot effectively prevent it, they are sending the trash balloons.

 

Q3. DPRK’s Objectives

 

North Korea’s intents seem to be twofold. Firstly, they are trying to haze South Korea by sending trash. Controversies were raised in 2020 about the organizations within ROK that send the leaflets. North Korea is aiming to increase criticism against these groups, causing them to stop the launches—provoking internal conflicts within ROK, in other words.

 

Another purpose is highly emotional. Since the leaflet launches could enrage Kim Jong Un, key leaders like Kim Yo must consider his reaction. So they might have launched the trash balloons to be able to tell Kim Jong Un that they have also done something in response.

 

Some raise concerns about potential security threats from these trash balloons, but in my opinion, there are no direct threats to ROK’s security. The explosion of these trash balloons could cause damage to individual assets or lives, but this seems unlikely. In fact, North Korea sent around 1,000 balloons each year in 2016 and 2017. During that time, the contents were quite heavy and destroyed some assets like cars in ROK. I don’t think the trash balloons this time are to that degree, but there is still possibility they may continue sending these, which calls for preparations.

 

Yet it is quite tricky for us to prepare against it. These balloons aren’t easily captured in radar, and there are very limited military options to destroy them. So we don’t need to worry too much, but it’s also important to know that they may cause some inconvenience.

 

Q4. Possibility of Chemical Weapons in Trash Balloons

 

Some question whether North Korea may put chemical and biological weapons inside the balloons. The chance of North Korea deploying these weapons with a balloon is extremely low. If they blow up a balloon with these substances in the air, they have no effect when they reach the ground. In other words, they would be ineffective as actual weapons.

 

Also, biological and chemical weapons are classified as weapons of mass destruction. Using such WMDs on the Korean Peninsula would trigger full-scale, total war. The moment DPRK’s WMD hits ROK, it would activate all military options available to ROK and the U.S.

 

Therefore, it is unlikely that DPRK would use WMDs in this manner. If they intended to use these types of weapons, they would likely employ other methods to accurately hit strategic targets. Because these are just balloons carried by the wind, it is difficult to accurately target a strategic location.

 

Q5. North Korea’s 10 Simultaneous SRBM Launches

 

Now I’d like to talk about DPRK’s short-range ballistic missiles that I mentioned earlier. Launching 10 of these at once is definitely not a common practice.

 

The primary reason behind this action is related to satellite. Announcing that they would launch a satellite on May 26, when PRC Premier Li Qiang was in ROK for the ROK-Japan-China summit, is an action that undoubtedly makes China uncomfortable. Nevertheless, because North Korea notified of the launch, ROK had to prepare for it.

 

On the following day, the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff led an air drill. This drill incorporated ROK’s cutting-edge combat weapons, including F-35A stealth fighter jets. Around 20 of these jets flew as far as the No-Fly Zone near the border with North Korea. This No-Fly Zone is designated within 10 km from the Military Demarcation Line. This is because the fighter jets are extremely fast, and crossing 10 km from the Armistice Line could easily result in accidentally entering North Korean territory. The significance of this action is that it sends a clear warning to DPRK that ROK can enter the North whenever it wants.

 

Here, the F-35A is important because its biggest feature is that it is not detected by DPRK’s radar. In other words, even if the F-35A flies over Pyongyang, North Korea wouldn’t know it. Since it appears as a small dot on the radar, DPRK does not have the defense capacity to counter this. In times of contingency, the F-35 is used to target key facilities in DPRK where they launch surveillance satellites or ICBMs.

 

There is a similar weapon system like this: the F-22, although it is not deployed in ROK, it is currently at the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. It is the most powerful stealth fighter jet in the world. In fact, the U.S. does not sell the F-22 to its allies. This is because in simulations, one F-22 destroyed 144 F-16s, demonstrating its overwhelming capacity.

 

I’ve actually been to the Kadena Base. In ROK, access to air bases is strictly blocked, but in Okinawa, they have an observatory where the public can see the landing strip and the F-22 silo. When I visited, there were several “military nerds” with long-range cameras lined up, and quite a few of them, in my view, likely had ties to North Korea. When the F-22 came out of the silo, Kim Jong Il immediately ducked and went out of sight. This shows how terrified he was of this weapon.

 

It would be similar for Kim Jong Un regarding the F-35. Usually, when North Korea notifies of a satellite launch, they do it within one or two days of the notification. Since they notified on the 26th, it is highly possible that Kim Jong Un was present at the site. He may have even had his daughter, Ju Ae, with him to showcase the success of the launch. The fact that ROK’s F-35A was active when Kim Jong Un was at the satellite launch site is a clear warning from us to him. Kim only knew about this because ROK made it public. If we hadn’t, he wouldn’t have known about the F-35A that day. This is a weapon that North Korea simply cannot deal with. So, this was evidently an immense threat to Kim Jong Un.

 

After failing the satellite launch on May 28, Kim Jong Un visited the Academy of National Defense Science and made a speech. He said that ROK and the U.S. have repeatedly conducted aerial surveillance and mentioned the deployment of U.S. strategic assets on the Korean Peninsula. He claimed that DPRK also has the military capacity to prevent U.S. military intervention in times of contingency. He also claimed that DPRK has the ability to annihilate ROK military in the early stages of a war.

 

In this context, they launched 10 SRBMs at 6 AM on May 30. These missiles are part of a 600mm super-large multiple launch rocket system, also known as the KN-25. This system can launch four artillery rounds at once in a very short time.

 

When North Korea first developed this, they said their primary goal was to deter ROK and U.S. air defense capabilities. To be more specific, DPRK held an event on December 31, 2022, donating some artillery for the KN-25. It was a propaganda event showing that the DPRK people donated it for the military. They held a drill using this system, during which they mentioned the utility of the KN-25. The artillery can fly up to 300-400 km when launched with the KN-25. North Korea said they would use this to target airfields and other air force facilities. They have reportedly designated each artillery to attack strategic air bases. Of these four, they could also load low-yield nuclear weapons. With this, they claimed they are prepared to completely neutralize ROK-U.S. air power. More specifically, they said they demonstrated their strong will and the state of readiness of the DPRK army to deter ROK-U.S. joint air power.

 

But to be clear, ROK and the U.S. have 100% air superiority on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea doesn’t have an adequate fighter jet that operates properly. Most of them are even older than I am. ROK authorities have already assessed during DPRK’s last drill that many of their jets broke down. Because their air weapons are so antiquated, it is obvious that ROK and the U.S. have air superiority. This poses a substantial threat to North Korea. So they seem to have showcased the capability of the KN-25 to prepare against the F-35A flying south to the No-Fly Zone.

 

So now the question is: Is this an effective deterrence measure against ROK and the U.S.? No.

 

Because the moment North Korea launches low-yield tactical nuclear weapons through the KN-25 targeting our airfield, it means full-scale war. Our air force is obviously prepared for this. We have missile defense systems and also conduct airway drills. We have operational plans to counter DPRK attacks effectively. So while DPRK’s recent actions reveal the threat that Kim Jong Un perceives, they do not suggest that they are able to deter ROK-U.S. air power.

 


 

Won Gon PARK is the Chair of EAI Center for North Korea Studies and a Professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University.

 


 

Typeset by: Jisoo Park, Research Associate
    For inquiries: 02 2277 1683 (ext. 208) | jspark@eai.or.kr
 

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