An Ig Nobel Prize for North and South Korea?

In 2020, India and Pakistan shared the Ig Nobel Prize for peace “for having their diplomats surreptitiously ring each other’s doorbells in the middle of the night, and then run away before anyone had a chance to answer the door.” The terms of the ongoing spat between North Korea and South Korea aren’t any less amusing and they may be destined for an Ig Nobel Prize of their own, even if animosity between the two countries — much like India and Pakistan — is rooted in issues with more gravitas.

North Korea has of late been sending balloons loaded with garbage over the border to the south whereas South Korea has stepped up its “psychological warfare” by blasting K-pop music over loudspeakers into the north. But as befits any functional democracy, the latter has run into trouble.

On June 17, Reuters reported the South Korean government faces “audits and legal battles claiming [the loudspeakers] are too quiet, raising questions over how far into the reclusive North their propaganda messages can blast”. Note: K-pop is propaganda because, per the same report, “These broadcasts play a role in instilling a yearning for the outside world, or in making them realize that the textbooks they have been taught from are incorrect,” according to Kim Sung-min, “who defected from the North in 1999 and runs a Seoul radio station that broadcasts news into North Korea”.

Apparently the speakers passed two tests in 2016 but failed subsequent audits, prompting the national defence ministry to sue the manufacturers. The court threw the case out because “too many environmental factors can affect the performance”. The ministry and the manufacturer have since made up, going by the fact that the ministry reportedly gave Reuters the same excuse when it was under fire over the speakers: environmental factors.

Imagine being the manufacturer who has to build a ridiculous set of speakers while being able to do nothing about the physics of sound propagation itself. The government wanted the K-pop to reach Kaesong, 10 km in from the border, whereas checks in 2017 found sound from the speakers could only get as far as 7 km, and in most cases managed 5 km. And to think the whole enterprise hinges on (a) North Korea being annoyed enough by the K-pop to blast music of its own in the opposite direction, at least to muddle the South Korean broadcast, and (b) South Korea’s claim that two soldiers defected from the North after listening to the music. Two.

Did they risk it all to turn the damned things off, you think?