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The battle of balloons between North Korea and South Korea

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

South Korea's military said it detected some 260 balloons, which were floated over the border from North Korea loaded with trash. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, this represents an escalation in a battle of balloons between the two Koreas.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The South's military said the balloons began wafting over the border Tuesday evening. They landed in Seoul and several provinces where they dumped their payloads of garbage and excrement, although it wasn't clear if it was from humans or animals.

SUNG-YOON LEE: I see the latest pungent move as a prelude to a bigger provocation.

KUHN: Sung-Yoon Lee is a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

LEE: This creates anxiety in South Korea that North Korea might smear biological or chemical weapons, even on objects or leaflets.

KUHN: South Korea dispatched bomb and biological and chemical weapons squads to where the balloons landed, but no weapons were reported. The South's military warned the North to stop what it called its inhumane and vulgar act. North Korea had promised to retaliate against balloons coming from the South. For years, South Korean activists have sent anti-communist propaganda into the North on balloons. The previous South Korean administration banned such acts in 2021, but a court struck the ban down last year for violating freedom of speech. North Korean state media quoted Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of leader Kim Jong Un, as saying Wednesday that the balloons were just North Koreans exercising their freedom of speech.

LEE: We've seen that kind of sarcasm from Kim Yo Jong in the past, but this is an escalation.

KUHN: Sung-Yoon Lee, who wrote a book about Kim Yo Jong, says the North's outlandish tactics and rhetoric make it easy for outsiders to dismiss them as nutty. But he notes that Pyongyang is skilled at using provocations to extract money and other concessions from foreign nations, even as it builds up its nuclear arsenal.

LEE: On the scorecard, it's hard not to see that North Korea has won virtually every round, so they have to be taken very seriously.

KUHN: Lee expects more North Korean provocations in the run-up to U.S. presidential elections this fall. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.