South Korea’s parliament has passed a law to punish activists for distributing anti-North Korean goods across the border.
For years, human rights groups have been sending items such as leaflets, thumb drives, money and Bible verses to North Korea, mostly using large balloons to float across the demilitarized zone. However, after a new law was passed by parliament on Monday, it is now illegal for South Korea’s ruling party to distribute any unauthorised material.
The move will mainly affect groups led by North Korean defectors, as well as activists such as Christian churches. Balloons sent by these groups to North Korea in the past have attracted international media attention and condemnation from the government in Pyongyang, most recently in Seoul.
Once the law takes effect, those found guilty of violating the so-called “anti-leaflet law” will face fines of up to Won30m ($2.5m) and prison sentences of up to three years.
Park Sang-hak, A North Korean defector and chairman of Fighters For A Free North Korea, expressed “great disappointment” at the new law, saying it would call into question south Korea’s commitment to democracy. Park sang-hyuk’s Free North Korean Fighters have been sending balloons filled with anti-North Korean leaflets from the low border for a decade.
“We risked our lives to come to South Korea in search of freedom,” he told VOA. I’m not sure if it’s Seoul or Pyongyang that’s making this law right now.”
The leaflets that Mr. Park’s group distributed to North Korea included information that was banned in the country, such as news of the 2017 killing of Kim Jong Nam. Kim Jong Nam is the half-brother of current North Korean leader Kim Jong UN. Pyongyang is widely believed to have given the order to kill Kim Jong Nam.
“These leaflets tell the North Korean people the truth about the cruelty of the Kim dynasty,” park said.
Talks between Seoul and Pyongyang have been suspended almost entirely. Critics, including Mr. Park, have accused the South Korean government of bowing to pressure from the North to ban the balloons.
Seoul’s ban on activists sending propaganda materials to North Korea has also drawn condemnation from human rights groups. The groups said the new law “jeopardizes” freedom of expression in South Korea.
Arnold Fang, East Asia researcher at Amnesty International, the international human rights group, said: “This is not sending a signal of goodwill to North Korea. “It shows that any government can restrict free speech through new regulations, and that’s not a good sign.”
“What the South Korean government should do is promote freedom of speech in the North, where there is basically no freedom of speech,” Said Fang, who spoke to VOA via Skype from Hong Kong.
He added that it looked like South Korea was taking steps “at north Korea’s request.”
In June, North Korea cut a cross-border military hotline and bombed inter-Korean liaison offices inside the north. The link, which began operation two years ago, aims to improve communication between the two governments.
The powerful Kim Is the sister of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. She blames south Korean defector groups for the breakdown in relations, calling them “human scum” in state media.
Mr. Kim’s regime has threatened to attack the activists in the South.
In 2014, the two countries exchanged fire in the demilitarized zone after activists organized a balloon float near the border. However, no casualties or major damage were reported.
Song Young-gil, a member of parliament from President Moon jae-in’s Democratic Party, said the anti-leaflet law was passed because of security concerns.
“The activity of sending balloons could provoke a military operation that could easily escalate into a local war or even an all-out war,” he said in an editorial published Sunday in the South Korean Herald.
“Freedom of speech is important, but the most important thing is to protect the lives and property of the South Korean people,” Song said.
At a summit meeting between Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim in 2018, the two leaders agreed to halt propaganda operations, including the dropping of leaflets by air.
Before then, leaflets depicting anti-South Korean slogans and images were common in areas near the border and even on the streets of Seoul.
Despite repeated warnings from the South Korean government and the blocking of the balloon’s location, some activist groups in the South have continued to distribute leaflets into the North, and it is unclear how many have reached their intended readers.
Yonhap quoted Lee Heon, a lawyer for North Korean defector Park Sang-hyuk, as saying the defector was reportedly considering appealing the new law to South Korea’s Constitutional Court.
Park Sang-hyok told VOA he and other activists will not accept the government’s ban.
“If the government wants to put us in jail, they can put us in jail,” he said. But we will not stop handing out leaflets.”