Tensions balloon at the border

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Tensions balloon at the border

A group of anti-North Korea activists are still raising tensions near the inter-Korean border as the two countries fail to break out of a decades-old stalemate.

Fighters for a Free North Korea announced plans to launch hydrogen gas balloons to send thousands of copies of the Hollywood movie “The Interview,” which contains a fictional plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, on DVDs and USB drives, and anti-North Korea leaflets across the border.

The group set its launch date as March 26, the fifth anniversary of the sinking of a South Korean naval corvette.

North Korea vowed to shoot down the balloons and warned of grave consequences. The group put off the launch while demanding a formal apology from Pyongyang for its attack on the ill-fated Cheonan ship.

The balloon ritual - a propaganda exchange that dates back as far as the 1950s after the end of the 1950-53 Korean War - raised alarm in October after launches triggered gunfire from North Korea.

The contraband material has been used for propaganda warfare between the two Koreas in order to win over the masses on each side of the border. Both sides have sustained, condoned, and promoted the quiet clandestine psychological warfare for their own political purposes.

Fliers from North Korea subsided from the late 1990s, however, after it was discovered that the Internet and cyberspace was relatively freer from the watch of South Korean authorities and the enforcement of the National Security Law, and a more useful way to approach common South Koreans.

But it did keep up the physical distribution of fliers and leaflets. The situation reversed in 2010 when defectors from North Korea and the activist groups in South Korea supporting them embarked on a balloon airmail campaign to open the eyes of ordinary North Koreans in the hermit kingdom.

The propaganda campaign led by civilian activists cannot be regulated as it can be considered part of the constitutional right of freedom of expression.

Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which North Korea is subject to as a UN member, stipulates, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression” and that these rights include “receiving and imparting information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The South Korean Constitution also guarantees freedom of expression. The activity can help South Koreans communicate with North Koreans and allow North Koreans to know better about what goes on in the rest of the world.

The balloons are the only way for North Koreans to keep up with reality while their state strictly prohibits access to reality and the rest of the world. The delivery of the “feel” of freedom could help accelerate an opening in the reclusive country and ease the information gap between the two Koreas. A court in Gyeonggi in January ruled that sending leaflets and material to North Korea by balloons is a legitimate means to express oneself and cannot be regulated by the state.

The National Human Rights Commission, also in January, concluded that private-sector propaganda activities are part of freedom of expression and should not be restricted by North Korea’s threats and the inter-Korean governmental agreement on restraining mutual slander.

But some legislators are proposing a law to ban the dispatch of contraband materials to North Korea. They want to revise the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Law so that any materials sent to North Korea are subject to approval from the Unification Ministry.

But this would be more or less censorship. Such a ban cannot fit under the law on Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation and could also raise legal questions. Any ban against individual contact or sending goods should specify who the recipient is. But fliers are aimed at the masses at random.

Still, legitimate forms of expression can also impair the rights and dignity of the other party. North Korea has warned that it will respond to balloons carrying material it considers contraband with military fire, either specifically or comprehensively.

There have been incidents where artillery fell on residential villages in the southern frontline area of Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi. North Korea even threatened a full-scale military response. The government cannot blink at these actions when the lives and livelihoods of citizens are at stake. Apart from the risk over the safety of residents in frontline areas, if the balloon provocations continue, soldiers could be restricted in their rightful holidays and the regional economy could be hurt due to the lingering threat. Opinions in the country could further divide and any improvements in inter-Korean relationship delayed.

Regardless of the good intentions and cause, the balloon campaign needs public support in order to continue. Civilian campaigners should be wiser. Instead of an exhibitionist campaign, they should continue with their activities more discreetly and quietly. They need not go through boisterous publicity whenever they launch a balloon.

If the purpose is to “inform” North Koreans, the contents need not be slanderous against Pyongyang. Their excessive language could only undermine their sincerity and motivation. The activities will be viewed as courageous and just depending on the behaviors and actions of the organizers. If they go on with their stubborn and rigid ways, their intentions could be questioned. Most of all they must work flexibly and in harmony with the authorities and community and should be open to dialogue and cooperation.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 27, Page 29

*The author a professor of Chung-Ang University Law School.

by Jhe Seong-ho

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