Human rights groups sue to overturn antileaflet law

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Human rights groups sue to overturn antileaflet law

Representatives of civic groups on North Korean human rights hold a press conference in front of the Constitutional Court after filing a lawsuit against a controversial law banning distribution of propaganda to the North. The figure speaking is Rep. Thae Yong-ho of the opposition People Power Party, a North Korean defector who formerly served as Pyongyang's deputy ambassador in London. [YONHAP]

Representatives of civic groups on North Korean human rights hold a press conference in front of the Constitutional Court after filing a lawsuit against a controversial law banning distribution of propaganda to the North. The figure speaking is Rep. Thae Yong-ho of the opposition People Power Party, a North Korean defector who formerly served as Pyongyang's deputy ambassador in London. [YONHAP]

 
More than two dozen civic groups in South Korea filed a constitutional complaint Tuesday against a new law prohibiting the distribution of propaganda across the inter-Korean border.
 
In a joint press conference in front of the Constitutional Court, 27 organizations that focus on human rights in North Korea slammed the South Korean government’s recent approval of the law, which they claimed defends the dictatorship in Pyongyang at the expense of the human rights of North Koreans “thirsty for outside information.”
 
The law, 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.
 
The groups said they had also filed for an injunction with the court to suspend the law while their suit was under review. They alleged that the ban infringed on legal principles including freedom of expression, the right to pursue happiness and the “legitimacy and national identity” of South Korea.
 
To “completely block” the distribution of leaflets and other materials criticizing the North’s authoritarian regime was an excessive measure that went against the least restrictive alternative principle, meaning there were less punitive options available, the groups claimed.
 
There were also serious issues with the legislative process by which the National Assembly enacted the law, they continued.  
 
Voting down an opposition filibuster, the ruling party rammed the bill through on Dec. 14, skipping a review by a committee that coordinates different options for pending bills.
 
The Ministry of Unification, Seoul’s top inter-Korean agency, later noted it would clarify a portion of the bill that was misinterpreted as a ban on leaflet distributions in third countries. This admission clearly showed the bill was unready, the groups argued.
 
The suit filed with the Constitutional Court presents the first domestic legal challenge to the controversial law, which received heavy pushback from not only activist groups in South Korea, but also international organizations and lawmakers in the United States.  
 
South Korean government officials, however, have fiercely defended the law as a means to ensure the safety of citizens living near the inter-Korean border, who have been endangered by the North’s visceral responses to leaflet launches from the South.  
 
The Unification Ministry also argued that such forms of propaganda are ineffective at helping the cause of freedom in the North, adding that they could even aggravate the situation for defectors’ families still living in North Korea.
  
It remains a question, however, whether Seoul’s Constitutional Court will rule against the new law, given judicial precedents to the contrary. In 2016, the Supreme Court acknowledged the 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.
 
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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