South Korea bans flying of anti-North Korea leaflets amid activists’ outcry


South Korea’s parliament on Monday has approved a legislation that bans flying of propaganda leaflets by balloon toward North Korea, despite criticism by rights activists that the country is violating freedom of speech.

Groups run by North Korean defectors and other campaigners have for decades sent anti-Pyongyang leaflets – alongside food, medicine, US$1 bills, mini radios and USB sticks containing South Korean news and dramas – into the North, usually by balloon or in bottles on border rivers.

North Korea has long denounced the practice and has threatened violence while shooting down the balloons before it can reach the interior of the hermit kingdom.

This is the first time that South Korea’s parliament has passed a bill formally banning civilians from floating anti-North Korea leaflets across the tense border.

South Korea has previously banned such activities only during sensitive times, and has normally allowed activists to exercise their freedom of speech despite repeated protests from North Korea.

The amendment to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act bars any scattering of printed materials, goods, money and other items of value across the heavily fortified frontier.

It also restricts loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts, which the South’s military once championed as part of psychological warfare against the North until it withdrew the equipment following a 2018 inter-Korean summit.

Any violation of the law, which will take effect in three months, is punishable by up to three years in prison or 30 million won (US$27,500) in fines.

The change was approved despite filibuster efforts from opposition lawmakers to block the super-majority of the ruling party of President Moon Jae-in, who is keen to improve cross-border ties.

The Bill was introduced in June by ruling party lawmakers after Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, warned Seoul should enact a law to stop leaflets or face the “worst phase” of relations.

“They were trying to put Kim Yo Jong’s order into law at her single word,” Tae Yong-ho, an opposition lawmaker and former North Korean diplomat, said in his 10-hour filibuster speech, adding the Bill would only help Kim’s government continue “enslaving” its people.

More than 20 defectors and rights groups in South Korea vowed to challenge the law’s constitutionality, while Human Rights Watch called the ban Seoul’s “misguided strategy” to win Kim’s favour by cracking down on its own citizens.

“It is a blanket ban that criminalises sending remittances to families in North Korea and denies their rights to outside information,” said Shin Hee-seok of the Transitional Justice Working Group, one of the 20 groups.

“Such appeasement efforts only risk inviting further North Korean provocations and demands.” (Source: CNA)