Gov't responds to UN's concerns about leaflet ban
The South Korean government on Friday rebuffed concerns by a United Nations group of special rapporteurs that the country's anti-leaflet law, which bans the sending of anti-Pyongyang propaganda materials across the inter-Korean border, violates freedom of expression.
In April, Tomas Ojea Quintana, special rapporteur on North Korea's human rights situation, and three other rapporteurs voiced their concerns in a letter that the ban could infringe on "the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression" and "legitimate activities" conducted by nongovernmental organizations in South Korea.
The ban, which was passed through an amendment to the Development of the Inter-Korean Relations Act by the ruling Democratic Party in the National Assembly last December over a boycott by the opposition People Power Party, threatens a fine of up to 30 million won ($27,000) and a jail term of up to three years for sending leaflets, USB sticks, Bible excerpts and money across the 38th parallel into North Korea via balloons.
Police in May conducted their first raid of a North Korean defectors' organization under the law and booked Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector and head of Fighters for a Free North Korea, after he claimed that the organization sent 10 large balloons carrying around 500,000 leaflets and $5,000 in U.S. dollar bills between April 25 and 29 in defiance of the ban.
In response to the special rapporteurs' concerns, the South Korean government sent a letter to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on Friday, according to the office.
In the letter, Seoul argued that the ban on leaflet launches restrains freedom of expression to "the minimum level to protect public safety" and is within the extent of restrictions on speech permitted by international human rights agreements.
The government claimed that such launches endangered the lives of residents living in border areas by possibly provoking armed retaliation by North Korea.
Seoul also emphasized that previous repeated administrative measures to prevent launches had failed, and that it saw the law as necessary to protect residents.
The government explained its position that the law was not concerned with restricting speech or certain ideas, but instead focused on limiting the use of a specific method – sending leaflets across the border – to express an opinion.
Enforcement of the ban has been picked up by the Gyeonggi provincial government, which announced in May that it would seek to block all attempts to send anti-Pyongyang leaflets by balloon through patrol squads composed of municipal and county employees.
South Korea's ban on anti-Pyongyang propaganda materials has attracted criticism even from its close allies, with the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a U.S. bipartisan congressional caucus, holding a hearing in April on civil and political rights in South Korea specifically to address the law.
In the hearing, a group of U.S. lawmakers urged the National Assembly to revisit the law, arguing that it is undemocratic and violates the South Korean constitution.
BY MICHAEL LEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]