Tying our own hands

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Tying our own hands

Lee Min-bok

The author, a former researcher for the Agricultural Research Institute in Pyongyang, is a balloon campaign head of an association in South Korea, a group devoted to helping North Korea.
The North Korean regime has brainwashed its people with the personality cult of founder Kim Il Sung, bragging of his “legendary achievement of independence from Japan” and “defense of the country from American invaders.” The people are fed a steady diet of misinformation about Americans, who allegedly turned the land into a bloodbath during the Korean War. To North Koreans, the Japanese and Americans are irredeemably evil and a common enemy. Their extremely different views about the Korean War and blind animosity are the biggest stumbling blocks to Korean unification.
I was enlightened with the truth when I came across an anti-North Korea propaganda leaflet at the age of 33. Upon learning I had been utterly deceived, I fled North Korea in 1990 through China and Russia and arrived in South Korea in 1995 with the hope of using my freedom to help the people living in darkness across the border.
During questioning after my defection, I told South Korean authorities that propaganda leaflets could be more damaging to the Pyongyang regime than a nuclear bomb. But the leaflet campaign was halted as a condition for the first inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in June 2000 between Kim Dae-jung of the South and Kim Jong-il of the North. The basic right to know the truth was taken away from North Koreans and sacrificed as a political bargaining chip.
If soldiers of the state give up in a battle, civilians must step up and take their place. I researched hard for five years and earned permission from the government to send leaflets to North Korea. I was repeatedly threatened by North Korea and even faced an assassination attempt. When that did not deter me, North Korea pressured the Moon Jae-in administration to pass a law banning the sending of leaflets to the North. A politician who had sent billions of dollars in aid to Pyongyang and argued the leaflet campaign would do more harm than good has become head of the National Intelligence Service, the top spy agency in the South. To my surprise, a bill banning the dispatch of leaflets to North Korea passed the legislature in December. The Kim dynasty must have cheered at a marvelous feat achieved for them by South Korea’s own parliament.
 A North Korean defectors’ group prepares to dispatch balloons carrying propaganda leaflets to North Korea from the Imjin Pavilion near the border in 2011. [KANG JUNG-HYUN]

A North Korean defectors’ group prepares to dispatch balloons carrying propaganda leaflets to North Korea from the Imjin Pavilion near the border in 2011. [KANG JUNG-HYUN]

That law violates our Constitutional right to freedom of expression and goes against basic common sense and facts. It demands common people to obey an inter-governmental promise, a move only possible under a dictatorship. North Korea has perfected its asymmetrical strategy of cyberspace warfare, and yet South Korea has volunteered to tie its own hands.
In fact, the campaign to send leaflets across the border by balloon does not pose any threat to people living in the border areas or their safety. Unlike official propaganda, the leaflets are flown without detection to the naked eye or radar. Also, it should be enough for the authorities to punish illicit dispatches by unlicensed activists through ordinary laws. The Gyeonggi Provincial Government has seized my propaganda equipment without legal grounds by declaring the border region a disaster zone. That constitutes an abuse of power.
The government and ruling Democratic Party (DP) pressed ahead with this outrageous piece of legislation because they blindly believe inter-Korean issues will be solved if they comply with demands from Pyongyang. But history shows that does not change anything and is probably the worst way to proceed.
When optimism over North Korea erupted shortly after the June 2000 summit, Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean defector, coolly said that North Korea could never seek opening and reform like China and that nothing would work better than awakening the North Korean people through dispatching leaflets across the border. Leaflets are the best enlightenment tool for North Koreans, who are denied any access to the outside world.
Fortunately, Jung Pak, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, who criticized President Moon for oppressing North Korean defectors to defend his rapprochement policy, has been appointed U.S. State Department deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Joe Biden administration. The news sparks a glimmer of hope for defectors and those fighting for human rights in North Korea.
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