An exchange of gunfire at the border has all but shattered the already-fragile ties between North and South Korea this week. And it's all thanks to a few balloons.
South Korean activists launched balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang leaflets toward North Korea Friday, over the objections of North Korea. The North shot the balloons down, but some of the rounds fired landed on South Korean soil, prompting border guards to return fire. (Video via BBC)
Neither side reported injuries or damages, but North Korean state media said the incident had driven ties between the two countries "into a catastrophe."
Of course, ties between the Koreas couldn't be described as warm even at the best of times. But there have been some encouraging signs recently. Last weekend, several high-level North Korean officials paid a surprise hospitality visit to the South.
There have also been some less encouraging signs. Several days after the visit, North and South Korean patrol boats exchanged warning shots when the North Korean vessel steered into South Korean waters. (Video via Arirang)
But maritime incidents are more frequent and more easily dismissed than confrontations on land. Observers fear this latest spat will kill any chances of renewed North-South diplomacy.
South Korean activists and North Korean defectors frequently use propaganda balloons to, as one writer for The Atlantic put it, "hack the North Korean government’s monopoly of information above the 38th Parallel. ... The embargo of information into and out of the country has forced human rights groups to be creative in their methods of reaching North Korean citizens."
The South Korean government doesn't condone these balloon launches, and will occasionally interfere if they feel the launches will hamper diplomatic ties. But government officials said they didn't have legal grounds to stop Friday's balloons.
And the leaflets are viewed as an extreme provocation by North Korea. One analyst from the RAND Corporation told Voice of America, "North Korean leaders feel about the defector leaflets a bit like [how] the U.S. authorities feel about the Ebola virus. ... Even a few cases could cause deadly infections that spread out of control.”
The renewed tensions come during a prolonged absence from North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un, who hasn't been seen in public for five weeks. That's prompted a flurry of rumors about his disappearance, ranging from personal injury to a military coup.
This video includes images from Getty Images.