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Seoul activists develop 'smart balloons' to send messages deep into North Korea

SEOUL — In the balloon warfare between North Korea and South Korean activists, one Seoul-based group has honed its tech expertise to develop balloons capable of dispersing leaflets and electronic speakers hundreds of kilometres across the border.

Built using 3D printers and components sourced online and sometimes equipped with GPS-tracking, these so-called "smart balloons" can cost up to US$1,000 (S$1,352) each.

Once or twice a month from spring to autumn, when favourable winds blow north, the secretive group flies the balloons - mostly under the cover of darkness. The aim is to drop cargoes deeper into North Korea, including over the capital Pyongyang, with the longer ranges now possible. One balloon has flown as far as China.

"Our smart balloons are expensive but we think they're a hundred times more powerful than balloons flown by other groups," said one member of the group which is called "The Committee for Reform and Opening up of Joson". Joson is another word for North Korea.

The group, which has some 30 core members and is funded by members' own finances as well as donations, has not previously detailed its activities to media.

Balloon tactics have taken centre stage in the frosty relationship between the two Koreas since late last month. North Korea, in recent years a rare deployer of balloons, has sent more than 1,000 south — most laden with garbage and some with what appeared to be animal faeces.

That has ratcheted up tensions between the countries which technically remain at war after the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in an armistice agreement and not a peace treaty. South Korea on Sunday resumed loudspeaker broadcasts directed at the North for the first time since 2018.

How effective the balloons are is a matter