North and South Korea resume a 60-year-long shouting match
In a modern, high-tech world of sophisticated, subliminal messaging, screaming taunting messages over banks of loudspeakers seems like a decidedly old-school style of propaganda.
Retro or not, it has proved effective enough to prompt North Korea to threaten war if South Korea does not switch off the speakers it recently dusted off and retrieved from the military attic to harangue its rival across the border.
The use of loudspeakers to deliver high-decibel threats and taunts goes back to the 1950-53 Korean War, when mobile units with mounted megaphones would try to keep pace with the conflict’s rapidly and wildly shifting frontline.
In his book, “Cease Resistance: It’s Good for You,” Stanley Sandler, a historian for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, noted that the messages blasting out from North Korean propaganda units were about as sophisticated as their equipment.
“You have expended all your leftover equipment from World War II. It will start costing you to continue,” was one less-than-moraleshattering effort aimed at U.S. troops.
After the war cemented the division of the Korean Peninsula, North and South continued the loudspeaker battle, mixing it up with radio
broadcasts and aerial leafleting.
The themes favored by both sides were initially quite similar — the iniquities of their respective socialist and capitalist systems, the mendacity of their respective leaders and the comforts to be found on their respective sides of the border.
In the 1980s and ’90s when the South Korean economy really took off, the message from the South changed as it increasingly trumpeted its success and affluence, while the North struggled with hunger and deprivation.
With the election of Kim Daejung as South Korean president in 1998, the content changed again, as Kim’s “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the North brought in a softer tone.
A former South Korean conscript of the time, who saw out his twoyear military service with a border propaganda unit, said the daily diet was largely titbits of news and pop songs — old and new.
In many ways, he recalled, the main priority was just to make some noise.
“We used to broadcast for 15 hours throughout the night into the following morning,” the former soldier, who declined to be identified, told AFP.
Another military official recalled how commentary on some of the matches during the 2002 World Cup — co-hosted by South Korean and Japan — was broadcast live over the speakers to North Korean military units.
“When we asked them through the loudspeakers whether they enjoyed it, we could see some signalling back their approval — waving their arms in circles,” the official told online news provider Media Today.
A single battery of loudspeakers could stand as much as 10 meters high, with 70-80 units piled on top of each other.
“The impact was greater than you may expect,” said Ju Seung Young, a former North Korean soldier assigned to a unit on the western front before he defected to the South in 2002.
“The South Korean loudspeakers were a rare source for news about the outside world,” Ju told the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper.
“At first, I thought their broadcasts were all lies. But after being exposed for two years straight, I began to believe it,” he added.
Although the South’s loudspeaker units were about 4.5 kilometers (three miles) away, Ju said the messages could be clearly heard.
By contrast, the North Korean propaganda unit Ju was assigned to had poor equipment and suffered constant power shortages that made it impossible to compete with the South’s powerful output.