South Korea's loudspeakers blast North Korea with word of defecting soldier's ill health

South Korea’s high-decibel loudspeakers on the border with longtime foe North Korea have at times blasted messages intended to inform, agitate, or taunt people on the other side.

The nation’s latest blaring border announcement says that one of communist North Korea’s soldiers defected two weeks ago in a daring afternoon escape at the most sensitive and closely monitored section of the 150-mile border separating the two countries.

The messages proclaim that the soldier — who was shot at least four times as he dashed over a military demarcation line and has been treated at a hospital near Seoul — is expected to recover from his injuries, according to South Korean military officials. The sound clips also say the soldier suffered from life-threatening malnutrition.

Officials said that while treating his gunshot wounds, doctors discovered that the soldier, 24, suffered from tuberculosis, hepatitis B and parasitic worms. After days in intensive care, the soldier — whose family name is Oh — was to be moved to a general recovery room.

Word of Oh’s ill health could be an especially demoralizing message to North Korea’s front-line troops and others within earshot of the speakers. In the recent past, the democratic nation’s speakers have mostly broadcast lighter content, such as South Korean pop music.

“It’s a relatively savvy move by whoever is programming the loudspeaker content, to incorporate that,” said Nat Kretchun, deputy director at the Open Technology Fund, a U.S. government-backed group supporting free expression. “Certainly, that is a message that forward-deployed troops on the [Demilitarized Zone] will know is true and also one that will probably hit home.”

Korea was divided when Japan’s control over the country ceased at the end of World War II in 1945. The messages via speakers began years after the 1953 armistice between the two nations that halted the three-year-long Korean War.

The two countries still share a common alphabet and a largely similar spoken language, though Western-influenced words now permeate the South Korean vocabulary.

Information about the loudspeaker locations and their message contents aren’t generally discussed by the South Korean government. But the messages can be heard near Paju, a border village north of Seoul open to tourists — and across the border from North Korean artillery sites.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that one message said, in part: “We have learned about the nutritive conditions of the soldier who defected through the JSA,” or Joint Security Area. The broadcast also noted accounts of other malnourished North Korean soldiers.

South Korea’s defense minister, Song Young-moo, on Monday visited the defection site at the JSA, a United Nations Command outpost where soldiers from the United States and South Korea are stationed within yards of their North Korean counterparts.

The location, sometimes referred to as Panmunjom for the nearby farming village, has been the site of inter-Korean talks and visits by tourists and dignitaries. It’s also known for its blue-roof huts and problems over the years.

Whether the high-decibel messages about Oh’s ordeal will have any practical effect on North Korea remains an open question.

Other messages have prompted angry responses from the communist nation, which heavily restricts access by its 25 million residents to outside information.

Some North Koreans do have access to state media, which often downplay troubling events and highlight what the government considers successes — such as its recent underground nuclear detonations and long-range ballistic missile tests.

Such events, called “provocations” by the international community, violate United Nations resolutions and have prompted widespread economic sanctions aimed at North Korea, which is led by Kim Jong Un, the grandson of the country’s patriarch.

The tests in recent years have also heightened tensions between the United States, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, a key ally in the region, and the North. Taunting and disparaging statements between Kim and President Trump in recent months have threatened to bring the two nations to the brink of war.

The loudspeakers have been turned on and off over the years following inter-Korean agreements, but they began again after an 11-year break in 2015 following a land-mine incident that maimed two South Korean soldiers. After a few weeks, South Korea agreed to switch them off, but resumed the program again following the September 2016 nuclear test.

As of Monday evening, North Korea had yet to respond.

On other occasions, the country’s leadership threatened to shell the speaker installations. The speakers have not been attacked, but the reactions have been rhetorically vicious, said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California who studies North Korea’s weapons programs.

“It definitely gets a strong reaction, which makes me think it has an effect on morale,” Hanham said.

Stiles is a special correspondent.

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