UN rapporteur concerned with Seoul's actions against defector groups

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UN rapporteur concerned with Seoul's actions against defector groups

Tomas Ojea Quintana [REUTERS/YONHAP]

Tomas Ojea Quintana [REUTERS/YONHAP]

A United Nations special rapporteur said Wednesday that he will ask the South Korean government to explain its recent punishment of North Korean defector groups that sent anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the inter-Korean border amid escalated tensions on the peninsula. 
 
Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, expressed his concerns about the South Korean government recently canceling operation permits for two defector groups in an interview with Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) on Wednesday.  
 
“The UN will be requesting information from the ROK government,” said Quintana, using the acronym for the Republic of Korea. “And we’ll follow up on this issue.”
 
Last Friday, Seoul’s Ministry of Unification revoked the operation permits of two defector groups, Fighters for a Free North Korea and Keun Saem, saying their campaign of sending propaganda leaflets to the North has seriously hindered the government’s efforts toward unification and jeopardized the lives and safety of residents at the inter-Korean border.
 
The previous day, the ministry said it will launch a probe into 25 government-registered civic groups, including 13 defector organizations, later this month. The investigation will look into whether they are involved in the sending of leaflets or other activities that run counter to their declared purposes of operation.
 
“We will request more detailed information, and then we will have the possibility to issue a formal communication with the government of South Korea, calling for a balanced management of the regulation and control of civil society organizations,” Quintana said.
 
He added that “because of strategy to re-approach North Korea,” the South Korean government has sidelined the Pyongyang human rights issues.  
 
Quintana stressed that these defector groups have an important mission to advocate for North Korean human rights and that UN agencies have been dependent on the information they can provide. He added that some 30,000 defectors have become part of South Korean society and are “living testimonies” of the situation in the North, hence why he would not want to see their activities being interrupted by the government.  
 
Quintana, an Argentinian lawyer who has served as the UN special rapporteur on Pyongyang rights since 2016, said that the United Nations could take additional official actions to raise the issue with the South Korean government.  
 
Seoul’s Unification Ministry confirmed Wednesday that the UN special rapporteur has requested a meeting with the government.  
 
“There has not been any request for us to submit information, but there has been a request for a meeting," said Unification Ministry spokesman Yoh Sang-key during a briefing in Seoul. “We plan to fully explain our government’s position through the meeting.”  
 
He added, “Freedom of expression and guarantee of the rights of the North Korean people are without a doubt important principles, however this has to happen within the scope of not infringing upon the rights of others, such as the residents of border areas.”  
 
On May 31, Fighters for a Free North Korea, a civic group run by defector activist Park Sang-hak, sent across the border 500,000 leaflets criticizing Kim Jong-un’s nuclear threats, $1 bills, books and computer memory cards via balloons across the border. His brother Park Jung-oh runs Keun Saem, which has also been involved in recent attempts to dispatch leaflets to the North.  
 
Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader’s powerful younger sister and the first deputy director of the ruling Workers’ Party, released a statement after the leaflet distribution, protesting the leaflets and threatening retaliation against Seoul if it didn’t halt such activities.
 
Pyongyang broke off communication with the South and unilaterally demolished the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong in early June.  
 
The South Korean government has advised against sending leaflets to the North, calling it a violation of the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act and saying that it could endanger people living in border regions especially amid recent intensified tensions on the peninsula.  
 
Without an operation permit, the civic groups will lose the right to claim tax deductions for membership fees and other donations, and donors will no longer receive tax benefits for their contributions.  
 
South Korean police in late June raided the offices of the defector groups accused of sending propaganda leaflets across the border into the North.  
 
Seoul’s measures against the defector groups has been drawing backlash from international rights organizations, however.  
 
On July 15, Suzanne Scholte, the chairperson of North Korea Freedom Coalition, a U.S.-based human rights organization, sent a letter to President Moon Jae-in conveying concern about plans to revoke operation permits from the two civic groups.  
 
“It is our belief that South Korea should protect, rather than target, human rights activities such as distributing anti-regime leaflets through balloons to the people of North Korea, as an act of free expression,” the letter stated.
 
BY SARAH KIM   [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
 

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