North Korea Launched Poop Balloons Across the Border. Could They Actually Lead to War? (2024)

  • North Korea has voluntarily ceased a brief campaign that had it sending tons of trash—including feces—into South Korea.
  • The trash was carried by hundreds of balloons into populated areas, including Seoul.
  • Although darkly humorous, an incident such as this could easily escalate into a major military confrontation.

South Korea has endured much from its northern neighbor, including artillery barrages, sea battles, cross-border attacks, and even tunnels dug underground. But North Korean harassment hit a new low last week, as hundreds of balloons carrying garbage—some including feces—drifted south and landed in the capital city of Seoul.

“Sincere Presents”

North Korea Launched Poop Balloons Across the Border. Could They Actually Lead to War? (1)

A view of North Korea’s Kijong-dong village is seen from Mount Dora inside the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) spans 160 miles (258 km) and serves as a buffer between North and South Korea.

The aerial assault began late last week, as hundreds of balloons carrying clear plastic bags filled with trash landed in South Korea. South Korean troops wearing surgical gloves fanned out across the country to collect the bags. Carried by prevailing winds, the balloons landed across South Korea, reaching the southernmost provinces of the peninsula country.

At least 760 bags floated southward from launching points in North Korea, with South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff military leadership estimating the rate of launch to be about 20 to 50 bags per hour. NKNews described the trash as “cigarette butts, waste paper, cloth, vinyl and other trash,” while other sites reported feces. The South Korean military stated that the balloon contents did not contain “chemical, biological, or radioactive materials”.

On Sunday North Korea stated it was pausing the balloon campaign but promised to start it back up again if South Korean citizens sent propaganda north.

KCNA, North Korea’s official state media agency, quoted the country’s Vice Minister of Defence, Kim King Il, as stating: “From the night of May 28 to the dawn of June 2, we scattered 15 tons of wastepaper, favorite toy of the human scum, over the border areas of the ROK and its capital region with more than 3,500 balloons of various sorts.”

Kang went on to state that the North would pause the poop balloon sky train … for now, anyway.

“We are going to halt wastepaper scattering over the border temporarily as our action was a countermeasure from A to Z. But, if (South Korean) resumes anti-DPRK leaflet scattering, we will correspond to it by intensively scattering wastepaper and rubbish hundred times the amount of scattered leaflets and the number of cases, as we have already warned.”


North Korea Launched Poop Balloons Across the Border. Could They Actually Lead to War? (2)

Photo of 10 "super-rockets" launched by North Korea in late May, 2024.

The balloon barrage was, as bizarre as it sounds, a retaliatory strike in a propaganda war. For years, South Korean private citizens (including North Korean defectors) have sent balloons northward—the only way to get goods across the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone that separates the two countries. The balloons carry anti-North Korean government propaganda, food, medicine, money, USB sticks with K-pop videos and music, news of the outside world, and religious materials.

North Korea is one of the most closed and tightly controlled societies in the world—one that overspends on its military and is prone to economic hardship and famine. It also has a chronically mismanaged economy and a gross domestic product of just $26 billion U.S. dollars in 2021, which amounts to just 3.5% of its neighbor, South Korea. Various groups of South Korean activists view the use of balloons as the only way to communicate with people in the north.

North Korea, unsurprisingly, has a dim view of this propaganda barrage, and has complained about it for years. People found with the airborne contraband are dealt with harshly. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, stated that their country was doing what South Koreans have already been doing, and pledged that her country would scatter “rubbish dozens of times more than those being scattered to us in the future.”

Missiles and GPS Jamming

North Korea Launched Poop Balloons Across the Border. Could They Actually Lead to War? (3)

People sit in front of a television screen, showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a train station in Seoul on May 30, 2024.

In addition to sending poop balloons, North Korea is broadcasting GPS jamming from across the border, interfering with navigation systems that use the American Global Positioning System. The jammers were originally devised to confuse American JDAM satellite-guided bombs, but are also used to harass South Korean civilians in peacetime. The jamming is currently taking place off of Korea’s west coast, but is too weak to affect populated areas, and is currently only affecting ferries and fishing boats passing through the area.

North Korea recently made a further grab for attention by conducting a mass firing of short range ballistic missiles. The country simultaneously launched ten short range ballistic missiles (or what it called “super-large” rockets) on May 29th. The missiles, fired to the East, impacted an island 216 miles away off of the Korean peninsula’s east coast. KCNA reported that the launches—conducted by the 3rd Battalion of the 331st Red Flag Artillery Regiment—were carried out using the country’s nuclear weapons management system, implying that the missiles could be fitted with nuclear warheads.

The launch came exactly one week after a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report that confirmed North Korean missiles have been used by Russia in its war against Ukraine. Ironically, Russia was the country that originally exported missile technology to North Korea in the 1980s, in the form of now-obsolete Scud missiles. On May 7th, the Kyiv Independent reported that Ukrainian government officials said about half of the missiles used by Russia failed during flight, exploding in midair. That statement might be true, or it might be a rumor designed to stress the relationship between Russia and North Korea. Whatever the case, the launch of ten similar missiles three weeks ago seems less like a coincidence and more like a quality control assurance stunt.

Although a little comical, events like the mass launch of feces-filled balloons have the potential to escalate into genuine crisis. Overreaction on one side could lead to sharper action by the other, back and forth—each a step up an escalation ladder, with war waiting at the top rung.

North Korea Launched Poop Balloons Across the Border. Could They Actually Lead to War? (4)

Kyle Mizokami

Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he's generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.

North Korea Launched Poop Balloons Across the Border. Could They Actually Lead to War? (2024)
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