Why North Korea and South Korea Are Feuding Over Loudspeakers

South Korea's decision this week to resume blaring propaganda messages at North Korea out of loudspeakers for the first time in more than a decade has sparked a series of events this week that have caused North Korean despot Kim Jong-un to order his frontline troops to be "fully ready for any military operations at any time" from 5 p.m. local time on Friday.

South Korea started the broadcasts again after two South Korean soldiers were wounded by landmines planted by North Korean soldiers near their guard posts at the border earlier this month. The countries agreed in 2004 to cease using loudspeakers to broadcast propaganda at each other's border guards and local residents.

Kim, the leader of the pariah state, also set a deadline for the South's booming broadcasts to conclude by 5 p.m. local time on Saturday or risk retaliation, describing the audio campaign as a "direct action of declaring a war." But why is the North Korean leader so angry with a series of oversized boomboxes bellowing into the ears of his citizens?

The broadcasts, played from loudspeakers on the top of South Korean hills, are audible to North Koreans living in border communities and the soldiers defending the demilitarized zone. The stream of noise includes news from the outside world, pop songs—many from the popular South Korean K-pop genre—and even radio broadcasts about North Korean defectors. It is an act of psychological warfare to show North Koreans that there is a world outside of the Hermit Kingdom.

North Korea's regime has been so incensed with this threat to their hold on the population that they resumed blaring propaganda from their own loudspeakers, although the North's speakers are so old that South Korean reports suggest that the broadcasts cannot even be heard across the border.

Edward Schwarck, Research Fellow on the Asia Studies program at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says that Pyongyang is increasingly worried about external influences on the North Korean population, which is largely closed off from the outside world.

"This type of propaganda is more damaging than it has been in the past," he says. "It is increasingly hard for North Korea to shield itself from those sorts of influences. It is not a closed country as it was before and I think a lot of citizens are getting a greater awareness of what life is like outside of the country.

"This is very much a pressure point that Seoul is pressing here. When you have an ideological contest of this kind, the psychological elements of the struggle can be extremely important," he adds. "Pyongyang has very little legitimacy among its people, who have very little awareness of the outside world. It is this type of propaganda which can be extremely effective and subversive and Pyongyang realizes this."

The North's totalitarian government, hyper-sensitive to any external criticism or internal dissent, is extremely worried that such broadcasts will harm the morale of frontline troops, who play a key role in defending the country's borders.

The broadcasts were almost a daily occurrence between both sides before 2004 until tensions eased. How North Korea will choose to react if the South continues its audio warfare when Kim's deadline passes on Saturday, remains to be seen.