On the South Korean side of its 151-mile border with North Korea, banks of loudspeakers are back on, blaring propaganda. It's the South's response to the North's nuclear test last week. The speakers, which broadcast everything from news to K-pop, come on at random times, often at night, and can reach as far as 12 miles into North Korea.
"I can't really make out what they're saying," says South Korean Nam Tae-woo, 83, who lives in a village just outside the demilitarized zone in the town of Paju.
The speakers do seem to annoy North Korea. When they were last turned on, in August, North Korea was so incensed it shifted into a self-declared "quasi-state of war."
"They say things critical of the [North Korean] regime, and these are leaders that are treated like deities. In many ways, it's what the leadership's legitimacy is staked on," says Nat Kretchun, who analyzes North Korean information flows for InterMedia, based in Washington, D.C.
He says the loudspeakers are better understood as political actions rather than something that can change hearts and minds.
"It's really hard to know what a proportional response to a nuclear test is, if you're South Korea," says Kretchun. "For your own populace, for the rest of the world, you want to do something that is looking like you are responding. And they found that turning on these loudspeakers really elicits a lot of intense reaction on the North Korean side, which at least gives the illusion of effectiveness on some level."
Politics And Psychology
Despite skepticism about their effectiveness, the South Korean government defends the broadcasts as an effective tool in psychological warfare.
"Truth is the most powerful weapon toward a totalitarian regime," South Korean President Park Geun-hye said at a news conference Wednesday.
"When we listen to the accounts of North Korean defectors, the soldiers who were placed on the front line, they said at first they didn't believe the propaganda broadcasts, but later they did believe it, and that was the reason for them to come to South Korea," she said.
The speakers on the inter-Korean border started in 1962 and didn't stop until 2004. After an 11-year break, South Korea restarted them last August in response to border land mines maiming two South Korean soldiers. A few weeks of escalating tensions followed, until the two Koreas brokered a deal to stop the broadcasts — unless something violated the deal.
"The loudspeakers are supposed to resume if North Korea creates an abnormal situation," said South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok. "North Korea's fourth nuclear test is an abnormal situation."
North Korea's most recent test follows earlier tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
The Defense Ministry isn't saying specifically where to find their banks of speakers, or what time the broadcasts go on. But if you can get close enough at the right moment, you can hear the muddy messages, which sound like they're coming from rickety drive-thru speakers.
A Blast Of K-Pop
The content includes news broadcasts, weather updates, digs at the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and a little entertainment to show the world has changed, according to the Defense Ministry.
The K-pop is intended to show North Korea that the world has modernized, the Defense Ministry says.
For villagers like the octogenarian Nam, the latest loudspeaker fight doesn't give him much hope he'll ever see his childhood home again.
"I'm exhausted by the wait to return home," he says. "My home is across the river."
Nam is originally from a place that's now part of North Korea. Given the decades of divide, those propaganda messages are reaching farther across the border than he can.
Haeryun Kang contributed to this story.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Along its border with North Korea, South Korea turned the loudspeakers on to blast propaganda. The noise reaches as far as 12 miles into the north - this in response to the North's nuclear test last week. We sent NPR's Elise Hu to the DMZ to have a listen.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Eighty-three-year-old Nam Tae-woo is passing time at his local hangout - a tiny grocery store where he and other retirees watch TV together while cooking potatoes on top of their coal-fired heater.
NAM TAE-WOO: (Through interpreter) And if we want a drink, this is a grocery store, so we can just grab one right here.
HU: Nam has lived here in Paju, a village within the demilitarized zone, for three decades. Life is quiet, except for the last few nights when has, at random times, caught the sounds of propaganda loudspeakers in the distance. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we state that Nam Tae-woo lived inside the demilitarized zone. The town of Paju has parts both inside and outside the zone, and he lives just outside the demilitarized zone.]
NAM: (Through interpreter) Sometimes I hear them, but I can't really make out what they're saying.
HU: Whether South Koreans can hear the broadcasts isn't the point. These are directed at North Koreans on the other side of the border.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Korean).
HU: Greetings to our brethren in the north, that just said. The rest of the content includes news broadcasts, weather updates, propaganda about the virtues of freedom and democracy and a little entertainment.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVING 100 YEARS")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Korean).
HU: Some traditional Korean music, such as this song, and more modern fare, like this K-Pop take on "Me Gustas Tu."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME GUSTAS TU")
GFRIEND: (Singing in Korean).
HU: And perhaps this is a little too on-the-nose, but the speakers also play this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANG BANG BANG")
BIG BANG: (Singing) Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.
HU: It's called "Bang Bang Bang." by the band Big Bang.
NAT KRETCHUN: There's not a whole lot new that they're going to be gaining out of these.
HU: Nat Kretchun analyzes North Korean information flows for Washington, D.C.-based Intermedia.
KRETCHUN: It's really hard to know what a proportional response to a nuclear test is if you're South Korea. For your own populace, for the rest of the world, you want to be able to do something that is looking like that you are responding. And they found that turning on these loudspeakers really elicits a lot of intense reaction from the North Korean side, which at least gives the illusion of effectiveness on some level.
HU: Despite skepticism about the effectiveness of this Cold War-era tactic, the South Korean government defends its use.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
PARK GEUN-HYE: (Through translator) Truth is the most powerful weapon towards totalitarian regime.
HU: South Korean President Park Geun-hye speaking through a translator in a news conference this morning.
PARK: (Through translator) When we listen to the accounts of North Korean defectors, the soldiers who are - were placed on the frontline - they said that they didn't first believe the propaganda broadcasts, but later they believed it. And that was the reason for them to come to South Korea.
HU: North Korea says it started its own loudspeakers in response, but they're so outdated, they're hard to hear. The South Korean government won't give specifics on the location of its speaker banks or what times the broadcasts go on. But if you can get close enough at the right moment...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Korean).
HU: ...You can kind of make out the muddy messages, which sound like they're coming from a rickety drive-through speaker. For South Koreans like Nam, hearing the latest loudspeaker fight from his village in the DMZ doesn't give him much hope he'll ever see his actual home again.
NAM: (Through interpreter) I'm exhausted by the wait to return home. My home is across the river.
HU: Nam is from what's now North Korea. Given the decades of divide, those propaganda messages are reaching farther across the border than he can. Elise Hu, NPR News, Paju, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.