Diplomacy by Other Means

Korean food is really good; I ordered some the other night. Yet for years we have read tales of scarcity and even famine in the North. Now the Dear Leader, with his legendary sense of humor (like executing his uncle), chooses to drop nearly a thousand poop-and-trash filled balloons on his neighbors to the South, causing world-wide scorn and laughter. There must be plenty of digested food to stock those shit bags so now we can stop worrying about starvation in the DPRK.

What’s really at stake here is a new mode of diplomacy. Kim is still provoking the world with his missile tests and bluster, repression and power purges, forced labor, and who knows what else. Besides outraging the West with his nuclear posturing, Kim is also a big jokester. Thus the poop bags, designed to bolster his endless campaign against the South, were a masterstroke of diplomatic insult.

The South weakly responded with its own balloons containing thumb drives of K-pop music and propaganda leaflets. It also suspended an agreement with the North to cease tensions and hostilities. Their back-and-forth has been going on for years; the poop balloons brought this to a new, almost frivolous, height.

You may think of the balloon as an object of lightness, freedom, celebration, anti-gravity perhaps. It can convey all kinds of meanings: politics, ads, frivolity and sport are all part of the balloon gestalt. The wonderfully loose gloss we put on balloons makes them great expressive vehicles, something Donald Barthelme explored in his bizarre tale of “The Balloon.”

In that story an enormous balloon moves over and covers Manhattan. People project their own fantasies and interpretations onto it as it shifts its shape and meaning, finally mystifying all but the narrator who somehow controls it. It ultimately means (“excessive discussion was pointless”) whatever we want it to mean. Ann Beattie contrasts it to the Chinese spy balloon shot down a while back. But Barthelme’s balloon is mystical and involving―and the poop balloons are anything but. Still, they are better than bullets and bombs.