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Paju: South Korean policemen yesterday blocked activists from sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border with North Korea, which had threatened to respond with a “merciless” military strike.
The decision to shut down the propaganda exercise was an unusual one and reflected, analysts said, Seoul’s desire to avoid any destabilising clash ahead of South Korea’s presidential election in December.
North Korean defectors who had planned to launch balloons carrying 200,000 propaganda leaflets across the heavily-militarised border were infuriated by the move, accusing President Lee Myung-Bak of capitulating to the North’s threats.
There were some minor scuffles as the activists sought to push through a large roadblock of police vehicles and security personnel set up about four kilometres (2.5 miles) south of the launch site.
“This event has been authorised by the government. This is ridiculous,” said Park Sang-Hak, one of the organisers.
“We are not here to provoke a conflict but to convey the truth to North Koreans. President Lee will be remembered as a cowardly leader who succumbed to North Korean threats,” Park said.
Local police officials said the decision had been dictated by “security concerns” after the North Korean army threatened a “merciless military strike” if the event went ahead and told local residents to evacuate.
“The surrounding area will become targets of direct firing,” the Korean People’s Army said in a statement.
North Korea has threatened strikes in the past, but Friday’s statement was unusually strong with its specific naming of the time and location, coupled with the evacuation warning.
It was also the first time such a precise threat had been made under North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, who took over the reins of the isolated state after the death last December of his father, Kim Jong-Il.
Troops in the South had been placed on high alert and Yonhap news agency reported the deployment of additional artillery and tank units to forward border positions.
It was not the first time the South has moved to prevent propaganda exercises, but yesterday’s action was unusually forceful in stopping the activists going anywhere near the border area.
President Lee has taken a hardline with North Korea during his five years in office, and the decision to ban yesterday’s event took some by surprise.
“Stability is the number one priority for Seoul right now,” said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies who cited the proximity of December’s presidential poll as a likely factor.
“I think the president felt that if he let tensions further escalate, he would see his political legacy tarnished at the end of his term and be blamed for leaving a diplomatic burden on the incoming administration,” Yang said.
It was not immediately clear where the decision to block the propaganda exercise came from, although senior police and military officials had met with local government officials in the border area on Sunday.
Cross-border tensions have heightened in the run up to December’s election, amid widespread concern in the South that North Korea would seek to provoke a clash ahead of the ballot.
Pyongyang had reacted angrily to the announcement two weeks ago of a new US-South Korean agreement to nearly triple the range of the South’s missile systems, bringing the whole of North Korea within range.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles cross-border affairs, called yesterday for restraint from both Pyongyang and the activists in the South.