DP rams through anti-propaganda leaflet law
South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party (DP) on Monday again used its large majority in the National Assembly to pass a contentious bill banning the sending of propaganda leaflets to North Korea, in spite of protests by the opposition and reproaches from international groups.
The bill, which revises the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act, stipulates a maximum prison sentence of up to three years, or a fine of up to 30 million won ($27,000), for spreading items like leaflets, printouts, money or electronic storage devices near the inter-Korean border with the intention of sending them to the North.
Propaganda leaflets attacking each other’s regimes have been exchanged by the two Koreas for decades since their 1950-53 civil war, as part of a never-ending psychological warfare campaign.
Though South Korea's government stopped producing these leaflets as a result of an inter-Korean compromise in 2000, civic groups in the South — many of them run by defectors from the North — continued to spread anti-Pyongyang propaganda.
The most well-known method of leaflet distribution involves the use of helium-filled balloons, which groups float from locations near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) toward North Korea. Since at least 2012, activists have included other items along with leaflets, including $1 bills, books, DVDs and thumb drives containing information critical of the North’s regime and leaders.
According to the Ministry of Unification — Seoul’s top inter-Korean agency — at least 19 million leaflets are estimated to have been flown between 2008 and last May in 116 known attempts, though much of these failed to even reach the North and have ended up as trash in South Korean territory.
For the government in Seoul — liberal and conservative alike — such activities have been a headache due to the tensions they generated with the North.
In October 2014, balloons containing leaflets floated by an activist group prompted the North to fire several anti-aircraft rounds toward the South’s Yeoncheon County in Gyeonggi.
What triggered Seoul to finally take action to ban the leaflets were the events of last June, when the North abruptly warned it would cut off communications as a result of leaflets floated across its border by activists in the South.
Pyongyang followed through on the threat by severing official dialogue with Seoul, then unilaterally demolished the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong.
DP lawmakers and government officials claim the primary purpose behind the new law is to uphold the safety of South Korean citizens living near the DMZ.
But the move has been criticized not only by domestic activists and the opposition, but a growing chorus of international organizations, which say the bill clamps down on a constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech.
Last week, U.S. Congressman Rep. Chris Smith threatened to hold a hearing to condemn the Moon Jae-in administration’s alleged suppression of civil liberties and showing “undue acquiescence” to the regime in Pyongyang. The United Nations’ special envoy for human rights in the North, as well as private groups like Human Rights Watch, have also been vocal in opposing the bill on human rights grounds.
South Korea’s conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP) has led the charge domestically to stop the bill, though its filibuster Monday was shut down by the DP’s overwhelming majority. PPP lawmakers have argued the DP is acting on the “orders” of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and that the new law “gives a free pass to North Korea’s provocations toward the South,” according to a statement released Tuesday.
Park Sang-hak, leader of one of the most prominent organizations behind the leaflets, said Tuesday he was planning to challenge the legality of the new law in South Korea’s Constitutional Court. Park’s lawyer told reporters the activist would proclaim the new anti-leaflet law as “evil” for violating his basic rights, then file a suit with the court.
It remains a question whether South Korea’s judiciary will accept the claim, given precedents to the contrary. In 2016, the Supreme Court acknowledged distribution of leaflets as an expression of free speech, but also ruled the government had the right to stop them given the danger the acts posed to the safety of citizens.
The Unification Ministry also explained Tuesday the new law was within the bounds of the Constitution, and that it would not be exercised to prevent South Korean activists from sending leaflets and other items through third countries like China.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]