Balloons on the Rise in Korean Diplomacy

On: September 16, 2014
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About Max Kortlander
Max Kortlander grew up in Ohio and works as a musician, writer, and editor. He is currently working on an M.A. in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.




This Saturday, the North Korean news agency KCNA rejected a recent South Korean proposal for official high-level talks as a result of anti-DPRK leaflet scattering known as the “balloon operation.”

South Korean activists have employed helium balloons to send messages over the North Korean border since at least 2003. The balloons tend to carry U.S. dollars, photographs from outside of North Korea, thumb drives with information, and anti-DPRK pamphlets. It was a recent launch delivering Choco Pies, however, that garnered major attention from international media outlets and DPRK officials alike.

Choco Pies first entered North Korea as bonuses given out by South Korean employers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a demilitarized business zone near the countries’ border that has operated since 2003. The confections quickly gained popularity amongst the North Korean populous, eventually to the extent that they were sold on the black market at inflated rates. Considered a symbol of capitalism and rebellion, Choco Pies were ultimately banned by Kim Jung Un this past July. The retaliatory balloon launch was ultimately met by KCNA’s public dismissal of South Korean state diplomatic efforts.

In utilizing the helium balloon, South Korean activists subverted modes of control that rely on digital technologies and physical infrastructure. The North Korean government employs a variety of blockades on imports, information, communication, and currency. While the helium balloon is neither as efficient nor precise as the technologies it replaces, the balloon nonetheless provides an impactful alternative for controlled mediums like phone, internet, and postal service. As shown by the Choco Pie launch, helium balloons are even capable of successfully delivering food and cultural influence to what is otherwise a largely isolated society.

This scenario poses a number of challenges to the current discussion of media utilization in grassroots diplomacy. Scholars have explored the role of grassroots diplomacy as utilized by governments and corporations, as well as the effect that the internet and social media has had on breaking down conventional diplomacy. Each line of thinking proposes a structure, either bureaucratic or technological, which enables efficacy in grassroots diplomacy. The balloon operation relied on neither of these systems. Rather, the lack of such structures is a crucial aspect of the operation’s design.

Working outside of conventional models, the balloon operation was successful on a number of fronts. It warranted a response from the governments of both North Korea and South Korea. Food was successfully delivered to eager recipients. Perhaps most importantly, the Choco Pie launch is illustrative of the humanistic role in grassroots diplomacy as described by J. Gregory Payne:

A fundamental theme of these narratives is the role of credibility and open communication in engaging people from around the world to enter/avoid relationships necessary for the creation and nurturing of trust and further communication. The overall goal is to further understanding–appreciation for what we share in common and respect and tolerance for our differences.

Balloons deliver substance in a way digital communications cannot. In sending Choco Pies, activists are sending tangible signs of peace that can be eaten and enjoyed. The pies are a physical representation of South Korean people and their production. Sharing this food is an active display of solidarity in which South Korean citizens communicate a mutual understanding for their counterparts in the North. This marks a distinct change from previous balloon drops, where the contents tended to focus on the differences between the two nations in terms of economics, culture, and politics. The Choco Pie, on the other hand, exemplifies the existing similarities.

The balloon operation highlights that new media innovation does not require new technology. Rather, innovation requires a consideration of the technology at hand for the parties involved. There is nothing new about balloons, chocolate pie, or grassroots diplomacy. There is newness, however, in the evolving contexts in which they may be utilized.



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McCoy, Terrence. “North Korea has reportedly banned Choco Pies.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.

Nelson, Katie. “South Korea Sent 10,000 Choco Pies Over to North Korea in Balloons.” Mashable. N.p., 31 July 2014. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.

Ordeix-Rigo, E., and J. Duarte. “From Public Diplomacy to Corporate Diplomacy: Increasing Corporation’s Legitimacy and Influence.” American Behavioral Scientist53.4 (2009): 549-564.

Payne, J. G.. “Trends in Global Public Relations and Grassroots Diplomacy.”American Behavioral Scientist 53.4 (2009): 487-492.

“South Korea sends chocolate snacks into North Korea via balloon.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 30 July 2014. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.

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Yonhap News Agency. “N. Korea calls on Seoul to stop sending propaganda leaflets.” GlobalPost. N.p., 13 Sept. 2014. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.


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