South Korea Passes Law Against Flying Leaflets into North Korea

Critics accuse Seoul of compromising on human rights for inter-Korean dialogue.
2020-12-15
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South Korea Passes Law Against Flying Leaflets into North Korea A North Korean escapee prepares to release a balloon containing leaflets denouncing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, near the demilitarized zone in Paju, South Korea, in a file photo.
Reuters

South Korea passed a bill Monday outlawing sending anti-regime leaflets by balloon into North Korea, an effort to remove an irritant in bilateral ties that drew angry criticism of Seoul from free speech activists and foes of the North’s ruler Kim Jong Un.

South Korea has issued temporary bans on the leaflet balloons during times of heightened tensions with the North, but the new law formally bans a decades-old practice of sending aid and anti-regime propaganda across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean peninsula.

Supporters of the law, which cleared the 300-seat National Assembly with support from 187 lawmakers aligned with President Moon Jae In’s Democratic Party, questioned whether the balloon campaign had enough impact to justify the bitter reaction it triggers in Pyongyang, as seen this past summer.

In June, a civic group sent over leaflets critical of Kim and the North Korean government. Pyongyang responded by cutting off all communication with the South and destroying a Seoul-funded joint Korean liaison office inside North Korea in what state media said was a “terrific explosion.”

Critics of the new law say that it deprives activists of rights guaranteed by the South Korean constitution, with some opponents even saying that the law show’s Seoul has caved in to demands from Pyongyang.

Civic groups and advocates for North Korean human rights have for decades been sending large helium balloons loaded with rice, cash, USB flash drives containing media from the outside world, and leaflets criticizing Pyongyang authorities.

During a 10-hour speech, opposition lawmaker Thae Yongho, who once served as Pyongyang’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom before defecting to the South in 2016, said of the law that it “will block the flow of South Korea’s great values, the spirit of democracy, freedom and equality, to North Korea.”

He accused those supporting the law for wanting to “join hands with Kim Jong Un and leave North Koreans enslaved for good.”

Representatives of one of the leading groups in the balloon campaigns told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday that his group would ignore the new law.

“Even if this law goes into effect, our sending of leaflets to North Korea will remain unchanged,” Park Sang-hak, chairman of Fighters for a Free North Korea (FFNK) told RFA.

Park, a refugee from the North who escaped in 1999, claimed in an op-ed he wrote for the Washington Post in July that he has survived two North Korean assassination attempts over his group’s leaflet campaigns.

“Once the bill is passed, we will send propaganda leaflets to North Korea 10 times, and if they make these kinds of laws 10 times, we will send leaflets 100 times,” said Park.

Park’s lawyer, Lee Heon, questioned the constitutionality of the new law.

“This is a bad law that will not be tolerated by the international community or be upheld by international law. Mr. Park is a party whose basic rights have been directly infringed upon, so he plans to file a constitutional complaint after the promulgation of the bill,” Lee told RFA.

The Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) told RFA it would call on the international community to address the problems with the new law.

“We believe this new law could impact freedom of expression and freedom of assembly,” said Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, TJWG’s legal analyst.

Several Washington-based Pyongyang watchers said Seoul’s new legislation worked at cross-purposes against efforts to make more information available to people living in North Korea.

“To prepare for unification and reconciliation between the two Koreas, and peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula, more and more information must be delivered to the North Korean people,” Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) told RFA.

“I don’t think it is appropriate to reduce such information,” he said.

Roberta Cohen of the Brookings Institute told RFA that getting information into the country is one of the most important ways of promoting societal change.

“Restricting that possibility can only strengthen Kim Jong-un's leadership and reinforce the isolation of the North Korean people,” she said.

Ken Gause of the Virginia-based CNA think tank told RFA that little in terms of inter-Korean relations would come out of the law’s passage.

“If the South Koreans believe that this is going to pave the way for an inter-Korean dialogue, that is probably not true. North Korea is not going to engage seriously with South Korea in dialogue until it is able to work out its relationship with the United States,” said Gause.

Others argued that the law could help manage tensions with a nervous, isolated Pyongyang.

"Such leafleting and balloon campaigns are profoundly provocative to North Korea and it is unclear on the ground whether they do much in the way of informing or agitating anyway, so it would probably be better for inter-Korean relations that they stopped,” said Robert Winstanley-Chesters of the University of Leeds in Britain.

The balloons may be a security concern from the North Korean military’s perspective, according to Mark Barry of the International Journal on World Peace.

“North Korea does not know what’s contained inside the balloons – they may contain leaflets, USB sticks, or something incendiary or contagious. The North Korean military does not know,” Barry told RFA.

“As is typical of its behavior, the North Korean military overreacts and assumes the worst about each balloon launch. People need to be reminded that the two Koreas are still in an armistice, technically still at war, and balloon launchings are invariably seen by the North Korean military as provocative,” he said.

The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armed truce that has never been replaced by a formal peace treaty.

Reported by Albert Hong and Yong Jae Mok for RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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