Former North Korean defectors carry a banner showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un before a launch of anti-North Korea baloons. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

The South Korean National Assembly this week voted to abandon one front in the Korean peninsula’s bloodless information war: balloon launches from Southern territory.

Meanwhile, North Korea, whose strategy in that war these days is mainly defensive, is escalating but has serious problems trying to keep its long-suffering population on side.

Daily NK, a Seoul-based specialty news outlet, today tells a classic Wile E. Coyote-Roadrunner-style tale about a technological aid that the Northern authorities have adopted in their campaign to catch people who’ve been looking at forbidden content – and a clever method ordinary people have devised to thwart it.

The technology is a South Korean software program called ComBack, which Northern officials use to restore files that computer owners have sought to delete in order to avoid suspicion. However:

In fact, just deleting a file on a Windows-based computer does not mean that the file’s data completely disappears. Only parts of the file containing information are erased and recovery programs like ComBack try to restore the file by finding whatever parts of it are salvageable.

Generally, however, the file’s data continues to degrade if the computer it was stored on continues to be used. This is because the file’s data gets overwritten by other files. As a result, it is very difficult for non-experts to perfectly restore files using simple recovery programs.

Accordingly, it appears North Korean agents cannot launch fully restored files to see what information they contain. Instead, they seem to be nabbing violators by “guessing” about the content of the files from their names.

[A] defector told Daily NK that many North Koreans know that the agents can “infer the content of the files from the file names,” so they are avoiding crackdowns “by changing the file names to the names of programs recently shown on Korean Central TV [KCTV].”

While agents are suspicious if they see files named after programs on KCTV, “they can’t do anything because they can’t check what was on the files,” he said.

Daily NK gets its news not only from North Koreans who have defected to the South but quite often by cellphone from undercover sources in the North who, at their great peril, pass along such information about what’s really happening in the country.

The danger to them is all the greater since, as another of the outlet’s stories reports, a new North Korean law against reactionary thoughts “comprehensively strengthens controls on … the entry and distribution of outside information such as news and foreign cultural materials.”

Bible banned

“The law’s ban on ‘foreign published materials’ includes the Bible, which suggests that the country’s suppression of religion will continue.”

Bibles are a major part of the cargo that balloon launchers in the South try to infiltrate into the North. As one foreigner asked on Facebook today, “What about the Bibles sent in by balloon? Is that considered propaganda?”

Of course, the answer should be yes, since the very word propaganda comes from the verb used in the phrase “propagate the faith.”

Some might argue that, since we’re talking about only the equivalent of lone but strident street-corner preachers trying to spread the gospel, the new South Korean law forbidding balloon drops doesn’t really interfere with serious matters of state.

But Bibles aren’t all that the balloons deliver. A recent cargo manifest listed the items being balloon-dropped that day as Bibles, radios and rice.

Radios! As Daily NK reported, the new North Korean law’s introduction “appears to focus on restrictions regarding foreign radio broadcasts. Basically, this seems to suggest that the authorities are very sensitive about radio broadcasts because of their reach to many people in the country.”

But let’s give some space to Lynn Turk, a former US diplomat who sees little harm in the balloon ban, who’s been dealing with matters Korean for decades and who argues: “Not sending balloons is not the end of the world.” Nor, he asserts, are the balloon launchers “undermining the Kim regime by sending them.”

The Kim regime may disagree about the effectiveness of the launches, judging from objections that have been not only strenuous but explosive: North Korean First Sister Kim Yo Jong ordered a South Korean-financed building demolished at the Kaesong site of what used to be a thriving North-South joint venture manufacturing zone.

But continue with Turk’s argument. He sees parallels to the successful German reunification. Launching balloons, he says, “is more feel-good for the people who do it, and that’s understandable – they want to do what they can. But in the long run North-South rapprochement, and the info leaking in with it, will impact the lives of the average North Korean in the whole country way more than leaflets only haphazardly landing in [North Korea’s] southern part.”

I’d argue that, in the long run, a law whose effect is to keep North Koreans ignorant bodes ill for the success of any eventual Korean reunification.

And keeping Northerners ignorant, by blocking them from receiving any news or other information that does not promote the longevity of the current regime, clearly is Pyongyang’s policy – not only for the moment, but also for the short term and for the long term.

Permitting “info leaking” to follow from rapprochement is not policy and is not about to become policy. Indeed, genuine rapprochement itself is clearly anathema to the regime

Although Turk accuses “Korean conservatives and foreigners” of “huffing and puffing,” I’d say he is is left in the end with little more than his arguments that the anti-balloon law (1.) was democratically decided and (2.) was, anyhow, something the government had committed to long before.

“Check the Korean public opinion polls,” he says. “They support the law.”

And regarding the second point, “Below is the ‘controlling’ passage from the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration:”

“South and North Korea agreed to completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air and sea, that are the source of military tension and conflict. In this vein, the two sides agreed to transform the Demilitarized Zone into a peace zone in a genuine sense by ceasing as of May 1 this year all hostile acts and eliminating their means, including broadcasting through loudspeakers and distribution of leaflets, in the areas along the Military Demarcation Line.”

“If the South makes deals but then doesn’t even try to enforce them,” Turk asks rhetorically, “you don’t see any problem?”

Well, I’d say giving up some South Koreans’ freedom of expression in exchange for not much, in the first place, was to start down a slippery slope. I’m going to predict right here that the Kims’ next demand will be for shutting down Daily NK and various radio stations that broadcast to the North, including one that’s affiliated with Daily NK.

A footnote: the new law against reactionary thought also bans “the outflow of internal information such as propaganda materials idolizing the regime,” as Daily NK said. The aim, in other words, is to control even more tightly information moving out of the country as well as into it.

In the east coast city of Chongjin, according to a Daily NK source, authorities “carried out the search of photo studios as part of a crackdown during the so-called ’80-day battle.’ The goal was to [stop] people from passing around USBs containing foreign films and TV programs, and ensure people did not print or distribute textbooks and party materials without permission from the authorities.”

Why a new crackdown on outgoing information? Try this as a rationale: Eliminate Kim Jong Un’s enemies’ ability to hear the ridiculous propaganda that the regime feeds to the Northern population, preventing those enemies from turning around and putting it on the radio and broadcasting it to the ruler’s own subjects to make fun of the ruler. Ridicule, after all, is a premier arrow in any information warrior’s quiver.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.