The Use of Old-fashioned Provocation: Hundreds of Trash-carrying Balloons from North Korea Have Landed on the South Korean Territory

North Korea sends balloons to South Korea to pressure defector activists, suspending border agreement, aiming to end propaganda. South Korean Constitutional Court declares anti-Pyongyang law void.

The Use of Old-fashioned Provocation: Hundreds of Trash-carrying Balloons from North Korea Have Landed on the South Korean Territory
Photo source: Balloons floating in the sky delivering information between the two Koreas. by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz, via Pexels, 2022/December 23rd.


Pauliina Majasaari

East Asia Researcher,

Global Human Rights Defence.


North Korea has sent hundreds of trash-carrying balloons over the border to its neighbouring country, South Korea, as an angry reaction to the South Korean civilian defector activists leafleting campaigns. With an inter-Korean agreement in place, South Korea’s presidential national security council has consequently decided to suspend the agreement which deals mainly with easing frictions between South and North Korea on the frontline at the border zone.


In the past, the two Koreas have used flying balloons with propaganda leaflets and other items, loudspeaker blastings, use of giant electronic billboards and signs of news outside of North Korea as well as propaganda radio broadcasts at the frontline as forms of psychological intimidation. The balloon-launch can be considered to be part of a series of provocative actions taken by North Korea, including a failed spy-satellite launch and tests on short range missiles. Experts are predicting that North Korea will amp up its provocations as the U.S. presidential elections are approaching, and North Korea is not happy about the current status of South Korea's diplomatic relations with the US, as well as South Korea’s anti-North Korea policies. Additionally, the balloon campaign is aimed at forcing the South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol’s government to put an end to the civilian activists leafleting, spreading propaganda against North Korea, and sharing information about the outside world to the North Korean population. However, it might prove difficult for Yoon’s government to prohibit the civilian activist groups from sending balloons to North Korea, as in 2023, the South Korean Constitutional Court declared a law that criminalised the sending of anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets to North Korea void due to creating an excessive restriction of the freedom of expression and speech.


According to article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference and the right to freedom of expression. This right includes the freedom to impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, in all kinds of forms, such as written and through the means of pamphlets. However, the right to freedom of expression may be restricted as long as the restriction is provided by law and is necessary to respect the rights of others or for the protection of national security. These rights are regarded to be cornerstones of free and democratic society and includes, amongst others, the dissemination of thoughts and ideas related to political discourse and human rights. Any form of effort to coerce the holding or not holding of an opinion is prohibited. Lastly, public figures such as heads of state are legitimately subject to criticisms.


Therefore, the South Korea Constitutional Court’s decision to nullify the law which criminalises the sending of anti-Pyongyang propaganda and information about the outside world to North Korea is indeed in line with Article 19. The activists have a right to criticise the North Korean regime and share information on human rights abuses to the North Korean population, as freedom of expression does not stop at the borders of a territory. Additionally, North Korea’s attempts of intimidating the South Korean government and thereby indirectly trying to restrict the civilian activists’ freedom of expression is not allowed under Article 19 of the ICCPR, as any effort to coerce the holding of opinions is prohibited. However, in case it would prove to be necessary to protect the rights, such as right to life, freedom and security, of the South Koreans living along the border of South and North Korea, police could limit the sending of the balloons with anti-Pyongyang propaganda to North Korea.


Consequently, as expressed by the Human Rights Foundation, South Korea is urged to uphold its citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and not to suppress the rights of its citizens due to intimidation caused by North Korea. As freedom of expression and opinion create the cornerstones of democratic society and are indispensable to protect other human rights, South Korea is asked to abide by the rights set within article 19 of the ICCPR and limit this right only as a last resort within the allowed framework of restriction.



Sources and further readings:


HRF Supports South Korea Decision to Uphold Freedom of Speech in Face of North Korean Threats’ HRF (14 November 2023) <> accessed 6 June 2024.


Human Rights Committee ‘General comment No. 34 Article 19: Freedoms of opinion and expression’ (2011) UN Doc CCPR/C/GC/34.


Hyung-Jin Kim, ‘South Korea plans to nullify peace deal to punish North Korea over trash-carrying balloon launches’ CNN (3 June 2024) <> accessed 5 June 2024.


Hyung-Jin Kim and Kim Tong-Hyung, ‘North Korea’s trash rains down onto South korea, balloon by balloon. Here’s what it means’ CNN (31 May 2024) <> accessed 5 June 2024.


International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted 16 December 1966, entered into force 23 March 1967) 999 UNTS 171 (ICCPR).


Kim Tong-Hyung, ‘South Korea’s constitutional Court strikes down law banning anti-Pyongyang leafleting’ AP News (26 September 2023) <> accessed 5 June 2024.