Seoul's international airport closed due to North Korea trash balloons (2024)

Trash balloons floated across the border by North Korea forced South Korea's largest airport to close early this morning - just hours before Pyongyangtest-fired what appeared to be a new hypersonic missile.

Incheon airport - one of the world's largest and busiest international transport hubs that serves the South Korean capital Seoul - was forced to halt all flights for roughly three hours as investigators descended on the tarmac to inspect the balloons.

North Korea has in the past three days sent hundreds of balloons carrying bags of trash, and in some cases human faeces, soaring into South Korea in a retaliatory move for Seoul's ongoing efforts to distribute propaganda leaflets across the border.

Both territories have engaged in a spiralling tit-for-tat propaganda war in recent weeks as their relations dip to new lows.

Trash balloons floated across the border by North Korea forced South Korea 's largest airport to close early this morning

FILE - The trash from a balloon presumably sent by North Korea, is seen behind police tape in Incheon, South Korea, Sunday, June 2, 2024

Incheon airport - one of the world's largest and busiest international transport hubs that serves the South Korean capital Seoul - was forced to halt all flights for roughly three hours as investigators descended on the tarmac to inspect the balloons (firefighters and chemical response units seen at Incheon airport in May)

FILE PHOTO: A missile is launched, as the state media reports North Korea test-fired a new mid- to long-range solid-fuel hypersonic missile, at an unknown location in North Korea, April 2, 2024

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stands by what they call an intermediate-range ballistic missile, on the outskirts of Pyongyang, North Korea Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Seoul's military said the balloons were carrying 'mostly paper waste' that posed no safety risk to the public.

But the latest batch of North Korean balloons triggered travel chaos amid a total suspension of inbound and outbound flights.

Both domestic and international flight arrivals and departures 'were suspended ... from 1:46am (1646 GMT) to 4:43am,' an Incheon International Airport Corporation official said.

'At around 4:08am, it was confirmed that a trash-carrying balloon had fallen near Gate 248 of T2, and military authorities collected it. The airport is operating as normal since 4:44am,' the official added.

Pyongyang has already sent more than a thousand balloons carrying trash in what it says is retaliation for balloons carrying propaganda criticising Kim's rule floated north by activists.

In response, Seoul has fully suspended a tension-reducing military deal and restarted some propaganda broadcasts from loudspeakers along the border.

Less than an hour after Incheon airport was reopened, Seoul was placed on alert after a new North Korean missile launch was detected.

The missile took off from an area in or around Pyongyang at about 5:30am (2030 GMT) and South Korean and US intelligence agencies were conducting a detailed analysis, Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

The JCS official saidthe missile blew up as it flew over the waters of the North's eastern coastal Wonsan city. It said the fragments of the missile were scattered in the waters, up to 155 miles away from the launch site. No damages were immediately reported.

JCS officials suspect the weapon was a solid-fuelled hypersonic missile.

It said the test was probably aimed at improving the capacity of a hypersonic weapons system, but the missile launch generated more smoke than usual, suggesting it suffered some kind of engine fault.

Japan also confirmed the launch, with its coast guard saying the missile splashed down in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea.

'Vessels please be careful about information to come and refrain from approaching if fallen objects are spotted, and report relevant information to the coast guard,' it said on its website.

South Korean soldiers wearing protective gears check the trash from a balloon presumably sent by North Korea, in Incheon, South Korea, Sunday, June 2, 2024

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attends a test launch of a possible new mid- to long-range solid-fuel hypersonic missile

A vapour trail believed to be created by a North Korean ballistic missile is seen from Yeonpyeong island near the 'northern limit line' sea boundary with North Korea on June 26, 2024

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un exchange documents during a signing ceremony of the new partnership in Pyongyang, North Korea, on June 19, 2024

Kim Jong Un's sister and key government spokeswoman Kim Yo Jong warned this month that Seoul would 'undoubtedly witness the new counteraction of the DPRK' if the leaflet drops and loudspeaker broadcasts continued.

An activist in the South confirmed Friday that he had launched more balloons.

Legally, South Korea cannot sanction activists sending balloons across the border due to a 2023 court ruling that bans it as an unjustifiable infringement on free speech.

Experts have warned that the balloons inadvertently cause border tensions to escalate quickly.

But several North Korean defectors who now live in the South see it as their duty to undermine Kim.

Defector Park Sang-hak considers the propaganda balloons he floats into his homeland to be part of a tradition of psychological warfare, and vows to keep going until Kim Jong Un falls.

Park, the son of a North Korean double agent who escaped his country in 1999, has been sending balloons loaded with anti-regime propaganda leaflets, US dollar bills and USB drives of K-pop across the border for nearly 20 years.

His mission is to 'enlighten the North Korean public', but the 56-year-old has found himself in the spotlight in recent weeks after Pyongyang singled him out as 'scum'.

Park told AFP that never in the decades of leaflet warfare between the two Koreas has either side sent garbage across the border, declaring that move as a 'subversion' of the 'rules of the game'.

'Kim Jong Un stands out as the first person ordering balloons of trash,' he said, calling it a 'despicable and atrocious act' and demanding Kim apologise.

Park has first-hand experience of the power of a propaganda leaflet.

He vividly remembers a leaflet he found decades ago in the North, which purported to show two successful defectors in the South.

'One picture shows this defector with pretty South Korean women in swimming suits, with the text saying he had received 100 million won in government aid,' Park said.

It changed Park's life, showing him that defection was not only for elite diplomats or border soldiers, but was possible for anyone who dared to cross the river into China.

North Korean defector Park Sang-hak poses with a poster that reads 'Republic of Korea loves the North Korean people' during an interview with AFP in Seoul on June 25, 2024

Park considers the propaganda balloons he floats into his homeland to be part of a tradition of psychological warfare, and vows to keep going until Kim Jong Un's regime falls

Since 2021, North Korea has performed a series of hypersonic missile tests in an apparent bid to penetrate its rivals' missile defence shields.

But foreign experts question if North Korean hypersonic vehicles have proved their desired speed and manoeuvrability during test-flights.

In recent years, North Korea has also been pushing to develop more weapons with solid propellants, Such propellants make launches harder to detect than liquid-propellant missiles, which must be fuelled before liftoff.

Hours before the North Korean missile launch early this morning,South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeolvisited a US aircraft carrier that arrived in South Korea at the weekend for joint military drills aimed at countering North Korean threats.

The drills, which include Japan, are set to go ahead later this month.

Pyongyang has routinely criticised such exercises as rehearsals for an invasion.

North Korea's last missile launch before Wednesday's failed test came on May 30, when Seoul accused Pyongyang of firing a volley of around 10 short-range ballistic missiles.

Analysts have suggested the nuclear-armed North could be testing and ramping up production of artillery and cruise missiles before sending them to Russia for use in Ukraine.

Seoul's international airport closed due to North Korea trash balloons (2024)
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