SEOUL -- Tensions have soared between North and South Korea recently, as Pyongyang responds with threats over propaganda leaflets floated northward over the border by defectors. That has made many of the 35,000 or so North Koreans who have sought refuge in the South nervous.
"We are feeling heartbroken, wondering what will happen to our families and relatives in North Korea," said Kim Tae-san, who heads a conservative group of defectors and others called the One Korea Work Together.
The leaflets, attached to balloons and sent across the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea on May 31 by a group of North Korean defectors called the Fighters for a Free North Korea, drew a fierce response from Pyongyang.
Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un, North Korea's supreme leader, warned on June 4 that Pyongyang would completely withdraw from a cross-border industrial project in Kaesong, shut down the liaison office in the city and scrap a military agreement between the two sides unless Seoul put an end to the leafleting. Those moves followed ban on South Korean tourists visiting to Mt. Kumgang.
On June 13, Kim Yo Jong said that a "tragic scene" at the liaison office play out before long, hinting at its destruction. The office was blown up on June 16. Along with Kim Yo Jong's warnings, rallies were held across North Korea, with participants shouting that "national traitors should be torn limb from limb."
North Korea used to describe defectors as "illegal border crossers." But the state-owned Rodong Sinmun newspaper and other official media have begun calling them defectors.
"The North Korean authorities can no longer hide our presence," said Park Sang Hak, leader of the Fighters group. "It is the first step toward the collapse of the regime," he said, stressing the effectiveness of the group's anti-Pyongyang campaign.
But other defectors fear the propaganda barrage makes their family members still living in North Korea targets for persecution. "Orders have been issued by the authorities to follow and ostracize defectors' families," said Kim Tae-san.
These defectors are also concerned about criticism from their new compatriots in the South. Calls to "Send defectors, who are threatening peace, back to North Korea," and to"let defectors pay for the damage resulting from the explosion of the liaison office," have popped up on the internet.
Most defectors are opposed to the government in Pyongyang, from which they fled at the risk of their own lives. But since Moon Jae-in, South Korea's left-leaning president who is seeking reconciliation between the two Koreas took office in May 2017, his supporters have come to see the defectors as a nuisance because they irritate the North by highlighting its human rights violations and other issues Pyongyang would prefer to ignore.
The South Korean government has ended or cut back on support for many defector groups. The latest leafleting episode has brought an explosion of anti-defector sentiment in the South.
"Most defectors oppose the leaflet distribution and consider it unbearable that the defector community is exposed to risk as a result of activity by a small number of people," said Pak Ye-yong, director of the United Korea Coop.
Pak does not oppose defectors sending messages to people in the North, but questions the wisdom of using propaganda leaflets. "It is hard to say how far the leaflets fly, and people rarely decide to defect from the North after reading them," he said. "I know people who have for 10 years kept throwing away leaflets, which have caused environmental problems in North Korea."
"There are other means of sending messages," such as the radio, Pak said.
"I was born in Kimchaek, in North Hamgyong Province (near China), and was able to listen to South Korean radio programs there. Radio is all they need. But if they still want to send leaflets, they as South Korean citizens, should follow the rules and win the nod from the public."
North Korea said Tuesday that Kim Jong Un has suspended planned retaliation against South Korea over the leaflets. Although tensions between the two Koreas appear to be easing, they may rise again, depending on Seoul's response to the propaganda campaign.
The unease of the country's North Korean defectors is likely to continue as they find themselves pawns in the back-and-forth across the 38th parallel.