Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

North Korea upset over ‘birthday’ balloons

Earlier this month, I posted an item about North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s birthday and the “birthday balloons” sent up north by member of the South Korean government and activist groups.

Well, as it turns out, Mr. Kim doesn’t like balloons. At least not those with propaganda pamphlets and instant noodles attached.

From the Korea Times:

“The ongoing psychological warfare … is a treacherous deed and a wanton challenge to the demand of the times and desire of all the fellow countrymen to bring about a new phase … through all-round dialogue and negotiations,” a North Korean military official told the regime’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

A defense official said the North warned of firing on South Korean facilities involved in “psychological warfare” in a “self-defense action,” unless the South suspends its propaganda campaign.

This talk probably won’t deter South Korea, which is set on releasing another round of balloons soon, containing information about the revolts spreading across the Middle East.


Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Isn’t That Nice: South Korea sends birthday balloons for North Korea’s Kim Jong Il

Yesterday was North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il’s birthday. And as they’ve done sporadically for years, a group of South Korean activists sent some birthday balloons.

Of course, those balloons carried about 100,000 anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets  to the North Korean people, but you know, we all get birthday presents we don’t fully appreciate.

Honestly, I’m fascinated by this low-tech psychological warfare. It’s so old school — sending propoganda by helium balloon to incite the masses.

Apparently, it actuallly works. In 2008, The Economist wrote a story profiling a North Korean nurse who came across one of these pamphlets dropped from a balloon. She says  it planted a seed in her mind for a better life and before long, she escaped to South Korea.

In fact, North Korea has been so bothered by these balloons that in the winter of 2008, it threatended military action if the balloons continued to flow across the border (they were bluffing, as usual). Although the South Korean government stopped its own balloon wars in 2004, but they wouldn’t take a stand against human rights activists releasing the balloons. Then, after the North Korean attack of a navy submarine and increased tensions, the South Korean defense ministry announced it would begin the propaganda war anew. When North Korea attacked the residential island of Yeonpyeong, the military immediately responded with 400,000 of its own propaganda balloons. The balloons released yesterday was openly supported by South Korea’s president, President Lee Myung-bak.

Balloons typically carry DVDs and leaflets about the uprisings in Egypt, anti-communist writings, dollar bills, transistor radios and plenty of insults against Kim Jong-Il, including calling North Korea “the Republic of Fat.”

But balloons aren’t all fun and games for South Korea. Last summer, the South Korean government panicked when residents of a small town near Seoul reported 40-50 objects resembling parachutes landing on a nearby mountain. When police and military personnel arrived, they found the objects were just balloons released by a nearby school.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Korean Magpies: a visit from the good news bird in the midst of North-South Korea tensions

While the world watches and worries as tensions between the Koreas reach a boiling point (I’ve  been a constant visitor to Voice of America’s Twitter feed all day) I figured everyone could use some good news.

Last week, my co-teacher and I shuffled along a crinkly-leaf strewn sidewalk to Africa Coffee Shop in Chilgok to continue my Korean lessons. A bird landed in the withering grass nearby and began its peck-peck-pecking in search of food. I’d seen many of them since landing in Daegu. “What’s it called?” I asked. “Ggachi,” she said. “If you see one, it means you will have a welcome guest.” (I don’t know if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but my co-teacher did visit my house for the first time later that week.)

I’ve been charmed by the ggachi since we first came to Korea. I’d never seen one before, and although they look pedestrian at first glance — like an outsized raven, maybe — upon inspection they’re beautiful birds. Striking white markings cover their underbellies and their wings are tipped with shimmering blue.

What my co-teacher said intrigued me, and I decided to do a little research of my own. Turns out that these bearers of good news and welcome guests are Korean magpies, or pica pica sericea. Of course, I was surprised to find that the Western symbol of greed, frivolity and vanity is one and the same as a Korean symbol of good.

So, as I sit here glued to my Twitter feed, fretting over North Korean nukes (and my English Winter Camp lesson plans) I’m hoping that Koreans got it right: maybe my magpie friend will bring a bit of good news.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Thoughts in Daegu on North Korea’s attack on South Korea

Here's a map detailing the 150 or so incidents between North and South Korea in the 50 years since the Korean War.

“Are you worried?” asked P.E. Teacher #1 as we walk down the hallway after finishing lunch. I was just telling him how my friends have sent some worried emails to me regarding North Korea’s recent attack on South Korea.

“Worried? No. Are you worried?” I respond.

Hesmiles and says, “A little.”

It’s been three days since North Korea fired artillery over their border and into a community on Yeonpyeong Island, killing two marines and two civilians. On TV, it looks like a nation in panic. In Daegu, everyone seemed nonplussed. But that’s just how it seemed.