Seoul, South Korea – “Is South Korea a dictatorship?” asked Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector and leader of Fighters for a Free North Korea who regularly sends helium balloons laden with leaflets about the North across the border. “Is it a free and democratic country?”
Park sent 10 balloons loaded with 500,000 leaflets and 5,000 one-dollar bills to North Korea at the end of last month. He says he wants North Koreans to know the truth about the Kim Jong Un dictatorship and for North Koreans to rise up against his regime. The leaflets criticise the Kims’s dynastic rule. The dollar bills encourage people to pick up the leaflets.
Park has launched such balloons 60 times over the past 10 years or so. The difference now is that it is against the law – South Korean law.
“The exclusive ban is an anti-constitutional evil law,” Park told Al Jazeera.
Park’s balloon launches have often been well-attended media occasions.
But in April he kept the locations of the events secret and sent off the balloons from the border areas in the dead of night, for fear of being apprehended by South Korean authorities tasked by the government with curtailing his efforts.
On May 6, police raided his office, promising a thorough investigation.
When he appeared at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency for questioning four days later, he lambasted the liberal government and explained what the propaganda leaflets were about.
“Those are the defectors’ letters to our families in North Korea. Letters of truth, freedom and love. And now we are not even allowed to write letters?” Park said.
The ‘anti-leaflet law’
The launching of balloons carrying leaflets, CDs, USBs and other items into North Korea was banned by a December 2020 amendment to South Korea’s Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act.
Park now faces a $27,000 fine and three years in prison if he is found guilty.
The Democratic Party and government officials justified the amendment on two counts.
Firstly, that the launches endanger the lives of South Koreans living in the border regions – in 2014, North Korea trained machine guns on the leaflets with bullets landing in South Korea.
Secondly, that the leaflets hinder their efforts at peacebuilding with North Korea.
In the landmark 2018 summits between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un the two agreed to stop all hostile acts, including the scattering of leaflets.
But Park Sang-hak continued his activities.
Following veiled threats from leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, over the balloons, in June last year, North Korea blew up the recently established inter-Korean liaison office located just across the border inside North Korea. The explosion could be seen from the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Kim Yo Jong also weighed in following Park’s April balloon launches.
“We regard the manoeuvres committed by the human scum in the South as a serious provocation against our state and will look into corresponding action,” she was quoted as saying in state media.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has made peacebuilding a pillar of his government’s agenda since he was first elected in 2017.
On May 10, he marked his fourth year in office, leaving him one last year to somehow foster improvement in inter-Korean affairs.
That can only come with the assistance of the United States, and this week Moon will travel to the White House for a May 21 summit with his US counterpart, Joe Biden.
Analysts expect Moon to focus on bringing the US and North Korea back to the negotiating table.
“We will restore dialogue between the two Koreas and between the United States and North Korea,” Moon said.
He also responded to criticism about the anti-leafleting law.
“It is never desirable to dampen inter-Korean relations by violating inter-Korean agreements … the government has no choice but to strictly enforce the laws,” he said.
Washington only recently completed a review of its policy towards North Korea, outlining greater emphasis on diplomacy.
The recent controversy surrounding Park and his launches may provide something of a spoiler for Moon’s plans.
Following the December passage of the law, human rights groups heaped criticism on the move. Human Rights Watch argued activities such as leafletting were protected under Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights and other covenants ratified by South Korea.
But some experts suggest there needs to be a better appreciation of South Korea’s unique circumstances.
“From a foreign perspective, (the law) looks like over-regulation of freedom of speech and expression … but in the context of the Korean peninsula, it should be accepted in the interests of inter-Korean exchange,” Professor Chae Jin-won an expert in Korean politics at Kyung Hee University, told Al Jazeera.
The law and controversy may also affect President Moon’s ability to get the US on side in reaching out to North Korea and generating space for the compromise President Moon advocates.
Last month, US legislators convened a special commission to address freedom of expression on the Korean Peninsula, with an expressed focus on the “anti-leaflet law”.
The online commission itself descended into politicking – with President Moon cast as a pro-North Korea authoritarian, restricting the rights of North Korean defectors trying to free captives of their homeland.
“There is nothing more powerful than North Koreans living in freedom in South Korea reaching out to North Koreans living under the enslavement of the Kim regime,” Suzanne Scholte of the North Korean Freedom Coalition, told the commission.
Others argued such testimony and the actions of the balloon launchers themselves were more focused on political ends.
“By floating the leaflets with reporters gathered around, they can promote an image as aggressive human rights defenders for North Koreans and receive funding for their work,” human rights lawyer Jeon Su-mi of the Conciliation and Peace Society, told the commission.
Jeon also suggested North Koreans have other access to news from the outside through border towns, concluding, “sending leaflets does not strike me as an effective tool to promote human rights inside North Korea”.
Turning to radio
Rather than take on the law like Park Sang-hak, some North Korean defector activists have employed other strategies.
Huh Kwang-il came to South Korea in 1995 after working as a lumberjack in Russia, where he learned more about the South and the outside world. He used to send CDs and USBs into North Korea, but in March began shortwave broadcasting.
“Our purpose is to awaken the North Koreans and promote their human rights, so that in the end they can assert that they are the masters of their own sovereignty,” Huh told Al Jazeera.
Huh also criticised the South Korean president for implementing a law that restricts his freedom of speech in a way that he feels more seriously impedes the human rights of others and North Koreans’ “right to know”.
“By oppressing North Koreans, it (the South Korean government) becomes more like a dictatorship, and eventually the victims are North Koreans,” he said.
Still, the Moon administration has been steadfast in its intention to restrict the activities of the North Korean NGOs in the hopes of engaging North Korea in the twilight of his term.
At his confirmation hearing on May 7 Moon’s latest nominee for prime minister reiterated the government’s stance that the leaflets “threaten the safety of our people” and are a violation of the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration.
Fighters for a Free North Korea’s Park has chosen to challenge the law as unconstitutional and filed a criminal complaint against Moon.
Huh aims to continue broadcasting.
“This is a mission of the times entrusted to North Korean refugees. It cannot be stopped,” said Huh.