Pyongyang has bizarrely quieted loudspeakers with the threat of nuclear force, even as it grants a few liberties to its people
The noise from the loudspeaker war that started in early August on the border of the two Koreas is quieting before the situation could deteriorate in one of the most controlled – and dangerous – regions on the planet.
After two days of negotiations in the demilitarized zone in late August, Pyongyang and Seoul reached a truce. The North expressed its “regret” for two soldiers injured by a mine. The South wanted formal apologies, but compromised, and in exchange offered to end messages broadcast over the public announcement system on its territory, which can penetrate about 12 kilometers into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The messages were intended to undermine the morale of troops the North has stationed along the border between two countries still technically at war after an armistice – but not peace – signed in 1953.
The practice was resumed after 11 years, but both sides had used it as a propaganda weapon for a long time, one of the many examples of total contrast, coherent with policies of antagonistic obstruction. The announcements this time highlighted Kim Jong-un’s inexperience leading a country, while those who have managed to escape the regime in Pyongyang told their ex-brothers in the North about life in the Republic of Korea: well-being, democracy and human rights. A more persuasive voice compared the North’s restrictions to the availability of goods and luxuries in the South.
In this grotesque situation, Kim declared a “semi-war,” sending more weapons and troops to the border. He succeeded in silencing the loudspeakers, and spoke of a memorable victory because he threatened to use his “nuclear deterrent in self-defense.” In the absence of precise information regarding what’s happening in Pyongyang, there are many plausible explanations for what is happening. Maybe the young dictator’s personal motivations should not be underestimated; he may have been annoyed by criticisms like those in the U.S. movie, The Interview, which apparently spurred a cyberattack on Sony Pictures.
In any case, it’s more likely that Kim and his entourage have undertaken a hazardous but visible course. On the one hand, repression, propaganda and displays of weapons and omnipotence continue. On the other, the regime is timidly opening up. A series of socio-political reforms have taken place, and the country is now living in a period of relative flourishing. Famine seems to have been averted, while an unprecedented liberty has been conceded to farmers: the ability to sell some of their crops. Tiny market elements have been allowed in urban centers, and even the wall of information has cracked. The North now has 3 million smartphones that can receive soap operas transmitted from Seoul. This would have been unimaginable only a few years ago.
However, these changes clash with the political system’s rigidity, which is still dependent on hard lines and Kim’s personality cult. It is therefore likely that Kim wanted to confirm his strong-man position, capable of provoking crises and resolving them with shows of force. No one knows what his next move will be, including Beijing and even probably even himself. In this uncertain framework, his control remains intact, even with the bizarre act of silencing the megaphones using the threat of atomic bombs.