PAJU, SOUTH KOREA — Police in South Korea prevented defectors from North Korea from launching balloons near the demilitarized zone Saturday. North Korea, as it has in the past, threatened to retaliate if balloons floated across the border. The provocative action would have coincided with the eve of South Korean President Park Geun-hye's first official visit to the United States.
A brief protest, with unfurled banners and expressions of outrage directed at North Korea, replaced a planned launch of 200,000 leaflets by balloon from a peace park, seven kilometers south of the military demarcation line.
Activist Park Sang-hak, calling for the end of the hereditary dictatorship led by Kim Jong Un, initiates a chant of “Liberate North Korean compatriots.”
Park, who heads Fighters for Free North Korea, says he is a former state propagandist whose father, a spy, urged the family to defect from the North in 1999.
Police on Saturday morning intercepted a truck hauling the leaflets criticizing North Korea's human rights record. But several dozen activists were allowed through to the planned balloon launch site at Imjingak, including some who had come from the United States.
Suzanne Scholte, chairperson of the North Korea Freedom Committee, expresses disappointment the launch of the balloons was not allowed to proceed.
“A clear indication of how very powerful and effective they are is how the regime in North Korea reacts. And we have to remember this is a peaceful, peaceful means to advocate and get information into North Korea," she said. "And the crazy reaction by Kim Jong Un just clearly indicates how weak he is in his hold on power in North Korea, that he would be so terrified of information getting in to North Korea.”
Some local residents also oppose the launches fearing North Korea will make good on frequent threats to drop artillery shells on the vicinity of Imjingak.
Police prevented a similar balloon release attempt last month.
Officials in Seoul say they do not want to give Pyongyang any fresh excuses for provocation at this sensitive juncture.
President Park Geun-hye, on Sunday, is to begin a six-day visit to the United States, the first since her inauguration in late February.
On Friday, the last seven South Koreans left the Kaesong joint venture complex in the North at the same time a vehicle headed there loaded with $13 million in unpaid wages and tax claims.
At the Kaesong industrial zone, 123 South Korean companies - mainly small textile factories - employed more than 50,000 North Korean workers. The rare North-South cooperative project opened in 2004. But North Korea ordered its workers out last month, saying the South had insulted the North's dignity.
This came amid a period of soaring tension on the peninsula, with North Korea repeatedly threatening to fire nuclear weapons at the United States and turn Seoul into a sea of flames.
Pyongyang's bellicose rhetoric coincided with an annual South Korea-U.S. joint military exercise and increased following the U.N. Security Council's latest sanctions on North Korea for continuing with its active development and testing of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.