SOUTH KOREA - North Korea appears to be revving up efforts to influence South Korea's presidential election through propaganda and possibly provocations in anticipation of a new Seoul government more favourable to its interests.
Some experts say escalated inter-Korean tension could fan voter anxiety against a female candidate without military experience while others argue the North will no longer be a factor as voters are mature enough to discern its politicking.
In their recent reports and commentaries, the North's media have frequently mentioned the South's December vote and berated the conservative Lee Myung-bak government and his ruling Saenuri Party for what they call "confrontational policy."
Last week, Pyongyang sent balloons across the heavily-fortified border, which carried scores of leaflets in which it upbraided Seoul's Defence Ministry for strengthened troop education against pro-North Korean activities.
A recent string of North Korean fishing boats violating the Northern Limit Line, a de facto inter-Korean sea border, has put South Korean troops on alert, causing Seoul to characterize them as "planned provocations" to affect the political tide here.
"What is clear is that the North intends to swing the political pendulum here to its advantage and in favour of the main opposition Democratic United Party pursuing reconciliation and cooperation," said Ahn Chan-il, director of the World North Korea Research Center.
"Should the North cause some tension (to affect voters anxious about strained ties), it could work positively for the liberal opposition camp."
Saenuri Party Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun said on Tuesday that the number of the North's activities targeting the South's elections jumped nearly three times this year, compared with the figure during the last presidential election in 2007.
Yoon, a member of the National Assembly's committee on foreign affairs and unification, also noted that Pyongyang has mobilized YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and other social networking services to target young South Korean voters.
"Utilizing social networking services, the North will continue to focus its energy on regrouping pro-North Korean forces in the South and mobilizing those living overseas," he said. "Time has come for the Seoul government to meticulously prepare for such a North Korean propaganda blitz."
According to data from the Unification Ministry, between April and last month, the North's state media directly mentioned the South's electoral events nearly 770 times ? a daily average of 4.6 times, up from 1.5 times during the same period five years ago.
Yoon added that in January, North Korea's young leader Kim Jong-un gave his propaganda apparatus within the ruling Workers' Party an order to intervene in the elections in the South, underscoring that Pyongyang has utilized an array of political scandals in the South to intensify its criticism against the Lee administration.
Aware of the North's thinly veiled political moves, the Seoul government officially called on Pyongyang to stop interfering with the elections here last week.
Particularly with regard to the North's criticism last Thursday against the Saenuri Party's presidential candidate Rep. Park Geun-hye, Seoul said the North has "gone overboard."
The North's propaganda Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland said that Park's recent apology for the dictatorial record of her farther and late former President Park Chung-hee was "distortion of historical facts."
"It is right (for the North) to immediately stop its electoral interference," Seoul's Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik said in a meeting with reporters last week.
Lee Cho-won, political science professor at Chung-Ang University, said that the North apparently seeks to remind South Korean voters that the North is still a critical variable in managing peninsular peace, and that the next government, thus, should prioritize reconciliation with Pyongyang.
"Whichever leader takes power in the South, the North wants to send a clear message that the North should remain on top of Seoul's policy agenda as it can move forward only when the security condition is stabilized here on the peninsula," Lee said.
Amid the North's state media increasingly covering South Korean politics, some observers noted that Pyongyang attempts to influence young voters by highlighting that Kim Jong-un is different from his late father Kim Jong-il who drew international denunciation for continuing military provocations while starving his people.
The coverage of Kim and his attractive and young wife Ri Sol-ju appearing at a kindergarten, amusement part and concert, and reaching out to the grassroots has apparently conjured up a positive image for young voters in the South, they said.
"Kim Jong-un has focused on building a warm image and forging some sort of a cultural trend in line with his efforts to establish a fresh and soft leadership," said Ahn of the World North Korea Research Center.
"This is apparently having an impact on the young generations here in the South. They have started to have some affinity for the couple and perceive that some change is taking place in the reclusive society."
Observers recognise the substantial decrease in North Korea's influence as an electoral variable. But many argue that the upcoming vote may be a different case given that it comes when the bilateral relationship is at a low point and the presidential race involves a female ruling party candidate.
"During her botched intra-party presidential nomination race five years ago, some party ranks, I guess, remained sceptical of her wartime military leadership with some voters subliminally uncertain and anxious about security," said Yoon Pyung-joong, political philosophy professor at Hanshin University.
"When things are going positively for Park, we cannot rule out the possibility of the North launching provocations. In this worst case scenario, the opposition may berate the ruling camp for its hawkish stance toward the North while describing them as peace-loving forces."
Some say that the possibility of the North making any provocative moves ahead of the December election is unlikely as the moves could fan anti-Pyongyang sentiment here and swing the political tide to the advantage of the conservative ruling bloc regardless of the candidate's gender.
The inter-Korean ties have deteriorated over the last several years as the Lee administration has adopted a reciprocal approach linking Seoul's economic aid to the North's denuclearization ? a departure from the engagement policy of the former liberal governments. The two fatal attacks in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans led to a serious deterioration in bilateral ties.