South Korean propaganda loudspeakers at border with North face scrutiny for being ‘too quiet’

The loudspeakers deployed by South Korea at the border to blast K-pop music and political messages inside the North are facing legal and audit challenges for being “too quiet”.

Earlier this month, South Korea said it will restart anti-North Korean propaganda loudspeaker broadcasts in border areas in response to continuing North Korean campaigns to drop trash on the South using balloons.

These speakers are designed to blare pop music and political messages as far as 10km (6.2miles) inside North Korea, with its audio decibel enough to reach the city of Kaesong and its nearly 200,000 residents.

However, audits and legal cases in the past few years claim they are too quiet and questionable in their reach.

The speakers deployed by South at present are among 40 systems purchased in 2016 after the two Koreas exchanged artillery fire in a 2015 dispute over the broadcasts.

However, the audits from that time showed that the new speakers were not powerful by the military standards and did not meet the requirements to blast propaganda far into the North Korean territory.

The speakers passed two out of three initial tests but those trials were conducted at night or in the morning – when sound travels farthest, said former navy officer Kim Young-su.

Another round of tests carried out in 2017 showed that the messages or songs could not be understood further than 7km and more often closer to 5km, the audit showed.

Mr Kim also said this was not enough to reach the North Korean city of Kaesong.

The speakers are also facing the challenges of the mountainous border terrain and North Korea’s own loudspeakers, said Kim Sung-min, who defected from the North in 1999 and runs a Seoul radio station that broadcasts news into North Korea.

Kim Jong-un’s regime uses the speakers more to “suppress” its rival’s broadcast by overpowering or muddling the message.

But the South Korean broadcasts still have a significant psychological impact on North Koreans who hear the messages or catchy K-pop tunes, he said.

"These broadcasts play a role in instilling a yearning for the outside world, or in making them realise that the textbooks they have been taught from are incorrect," he said.

Despite the environmental and technical limitations, the broadcasts have nonetheless been effective. At least two North Korean soldiers from the frontlines defected to the South in 2017 after listening to loudspeaker broadcasts, local media reported, citing South Korean officials.

"We know that the North Koreans find them partly effective because they have spent a lot of time getting them turned off," said Steve Tharp, a retired US Army officer who spent years working along the border.

The angry reaction to the broadcasts also suggests that the speakers strike a nerve with the authoritarian country, he said.