Opinion: It's a bird, it's a plane, no, it's trash and tunes in the air North Korea has reportedly sent balloons carrying trash and excrement into South Korea. NPR's Scott Simon has details — smelly and otherwise — on how both countries have used balloons over the years.

Opinion: It's a bird, it's a plane, no, it's trash and tunes in the air

Opinion: It's a bird, it's a plane, no, it's trash and tunes in the air

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North Korean defectors living in South Korea release balloons carrying propaganda leaflets denouncing North Korea's nuclear test at Imjingak, near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Feb. 16, 2013, in Paju, South Korea.

North Korean defectors living in South Korea release balloons carrying propaganda leaflets denouncing North Korea's nuclear test at Imjingak, near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Feb. 16, 2013, in Paju, South Korea. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images hide caption

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Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Geopolitics can be messy. Sometimes, worse than messy.

This week North Korea reportedly released more than 260 balloons into South Korea, packed with toilet paper, batteries, and what some news reports referred to as “dark soil.”

The balloons have been found in eight of South Korea’s nine provinces. Officials advise people who encounter the balloons not to touch them because they hold, “filthy waste and trash.”

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reports that judging by smell, the “filthy waste” seems to be filth indeed.

"It seriously threatens the safety of our people,” said a statement from the South Korean military.

The history of balloon campaigns runs back to the 1950’s, when the BBC says both North and South Korea released balloons across the border, stuffed with propaganda haranguing the other side.

In 2016, North Korea sent some balloons into the South, packed with cigarette butts, toilet paper, and trash that South Korean police called, “hazardous biochemical substances.”

In recent years, South Korean activists have floated balloons into North Korea to carry news reports, money, and food — including Choco Pies, a popular treat banned in North Korea, where the UN says almost half the population doesn’t get enough to eat.

South Korea’s parliament passed a law in 2020, banning the propaganda launches. But, the law was overturned by South Korea’s Constitutional Court last year, as an infringement on free speech.

And so in May, South Korean activists announced they had released a group of balloons across the border carrying leaflets critical of the North Korean regime, and perhaps more potentially forbidding to a tyranny: USB sticks packed with K-pop music and videos.

North Korea’s rulers may find popular culture as menacing as “dark soil,” and have now exacted what amounts to garbage balloon revenge.

“Mounds of wastepaper and filth will soon be scattered over the border areas,” announced the Vice Minister of Defense.

What would you prefer to be your national cultural export into the world: balloons loaded with garbage — or K-pop?