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North and South Korea Exchange Gunfire Over Propaganda Balloons as Kim Jong-un Misses National Event

South Korean activists floated 200,000 leaflets and $1,000 in cash across the border, as well as DVDs and books illustrating life in the south.
Photo by AP/Ahn Young-joon

South Korean activists marked the 69th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean Workers' Party by launching balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang propaganda across the border — only to provoke afternoon gunfire from their northern neighbors in an attempt to shoot them down.

Along with 200,000 leaflets and $1,000 in cash, the balloons were loaded with DVDs and books illustrating life in the south. South Korean activists have previously sent balloons over the border. This past summer they attached them to bags filled with Choco Pies, a popular regional snack that was banned by North Korea's government for its unauthorized use as currency within the Hermit Kingdom.


Choco Pies: Kim Jong-un's most hated dessert. Read more here.

(Video via Reuters/YouTube)

South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that the North Korean military targeted the balloons as they crossed the border. South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said that their military fired back after some of the shots landed on the southern side. There were no casualties reported.

Prior to the ruling party's anniversary, the North Korean news outlet Korean Central News Agency issued a warning on Pyongyang's behalf that there would be an "uncontrollable catastrophe" if the sending of propaganda pamphlets wasn't halted.

As tensions mounted between the countries, outside observers were looking to see whether supreme leader Kim Jong-un, whose leadership status has been in question, would make his first public appearance more than a month at the party commemoration event. The 31-year-old leader turned out to be a no-show at the event, where the attendance of North Korea's leaders is customary. The ceremony paid tribute to his late father and predecessor Kim Jong-il, as well as his grandfather and "eternal leader" Kim Il-sung.

Kim hasn't been seen since September 3, when he attended a concert of the all-female Moranbong Band at the Mansudae Art Theatre in Pyongyang, where he was accompanied by his wife, sister, and regime officials.

His five-week absence has been the young leader's longest stint out of the public eye, and has occasioned much speculation. Theories have offered various possibilities involving weight gain, gout, fractured ankles, a pulled tendon, and even a potential coup. There are even suspicions that his younger sister Kim Yo-jong is running the country.


Why a very specific kind of coup may explain Kim Jong-un's disappearance. Read more here.

North Korean state media announced late last month that Kim was experiencing an "uncomfortable physical condition," but offered no details. South Korea's government believes that he remains in power.

South Korea's defense minister told journalists that there was "reason to believe that Kim is probably staying in one of his homes" near the Bongwha hospital in Pyongyang, which is known to treat the country's elite officials.

While this is the longest Kim has gone without making a public appearance, he was previously out of view for 24 days in June and July of 2012, as well as 29 days in July and August of 2011.

Senior officials have made diplomatic moves during Kim's absence, including paying a suddenvisit to South Korea last Saturday. A North Korean official also announced interest in restarting six-party peace talks with South Korea that would also include Russia, Japan, the United States, and China.

Top North Korean officials make surprise visit to South Korea. Read more here.

Kim's low profile, however, has not curtailed international criticism of the oppressive regime's human rights record. Reuters received a copy of a draft UN resolution prepared by the European Union and Japan calling for the referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

It is not uncommon for General Assembly resolutions to call out North Korea and other human rights offenders, but if this resolution makes it to a vote it will be the first time a recommendation has been made to refer the country's leaders to the ICC. The resolution's wording is still under negotiation and subject to change, and will need to be approved by the General Assembly's Third Committee. It would then be set for approval by the General Assembly in December.

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB