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South Korea to Turn Off Propaganda Speakers, but Can It Tone Down Tensions With Pyongyang?

After weeks of tension, North and South Korea came to a peace agreement Monday. But not all South Koreans are thrilled their government caved to North Korean requests.

South Korean conservative activists hold placards showing portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un during a rally denouncing North Korea's rocket firing, in Seoul on August 21, 2015. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un ordered his frontline troops onto a war-footing from August 21, as military tensions with South Korea soared following a rare exchange of artillery shells across their heavily fortified border.    AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE        (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
South Korean conservative activists hold placards showing portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un during a rally denouncing North Korea's rocket firing, in Seoul on August 21, 2015. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un ordered his frontline troops onto a war-footing from August 21, as military tensions with South Korea soared following a rare exchange of artillery shells across their heavily fortified border. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

Speakers blaring South Korean propaganda and pop music over the border into North Korea will be turned off after the two countries reached an agreement Monday to a standoff that has had both sides on edge since early August.

But not all South Koreans are happy that their government caved to North Korean requests, especially those who fear that by negotiating with their frosty northern neighbor, Seoul is encouraging Pyongyang to behave undiplomatically again in the future. Moreover, the agreement that was sealed aboveground came after reports that several dozen North Korean submarines were believed to be lurking in nearby seas, which could undermine the tentative peace.

“This is an ongoing story,” Katy Oh, an Asia specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses, told Foreign Policy. In recent years, she said, many South Koreans have recognized the manipulative nature of North Korean tactics and want the government to address them more heavy-handedly. “They’ve started to say, ‘Aha! The more we tolerate and swallow the humility, these North Korean guys raise the level of crisis to make us be more susceptible and subservient to his [Kim Jong Un’s] order, and we cannot tolerate it.’”

Tensions between the neighbors were heightened in early August when two South Korean soldiers were injured by a North Korean landmine blast. South Korea’s broadcasts began shortly after that, and last week North Korea declared they were in a “quasi-state of war” against the South. The two countries even exchanged cross-border artillery fire, in what’s considered the most tense military action between the two countries in recent years.

North Korea labeled the South Korean speakers — which are based at 11 locations around the North Korean border and can broadcast as far as 12 miles into North Korean territory — as “psychological warfare” and threatened military action against the South if the speakers were not turned off. As part of the ramp-up in tensions, North Korea deployed its navy in huge numbers in recent days, according to reports from South Korea. “Seventy percent of North Korea’s submarines left their bases, and their locations are not confirmed,” a South Korean military official told Yonhap News.

It is still unclear where exactly the submarines are now based, and Oh compared trying to find them to being “in a very unpleasant big lake, and you heard that somebody just released a lot of snakes, but you don’t know where they are.”

North Korea is estimated to have about 70 submarines in its fleet, the majority of which are old Soviet-era boats that have long been retired by the Russians and other former Soviet client states. The hermit nation’s Romeo class subs, for example, were built by the Soviet Union in the 1950s and were replaced almost immediately by Moscow once nuclear submarines came on line in the early 1960s.

Even if they are outdated, Oh said North Korea has kept its subs in decent condition, and they still have some military capabilities, even if their deployment is likely a scare tactic.

The North is thought to have about 20 of the Romeo subs — the country’s largest submarine — along with several dozen smaller Sang-O subs. Sang-Os are mostly used for Pyongyang’s special operations force to infiltrate the South, but are also capable laying mines in coastal waters.

But even if Monday’s resolution aims to give South Koreans temporary reassurance that North Korea will not attack, the deal — which took 43 hours of negotiations — is really just a temporary fix for this month’s escalation.

North Korea said it “regrets” injuring the two soldiers hurt in the early August blast, a concession that Seoul demanded. But Oh said many South Koreans see the resolution as giving in to North Korea without getting much — including a real apology — in return. By tiptoeing around North Korea, she said, the South is offering band-aid solutions that could allow the North to justify future provocations down the road.

“South Korea is a little bit happy,” Oh said. “But this kind of game will continue until North Korea completely disappears from the global map.”

Photo credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

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