03.06.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Read more about the “lanti-leaflet law” and the activities of Park Sang-hak and Co

Korea anti-leaflet law

After the publication of the piece on “Three Steps closer to the Red Line,” the author was asked to elaborate on the situation pertaining to the anti-leaflet law and the activities of Park Sang-hak and his “Fighters for a Free North Korea.

We depicted the biography of Park Sang-hak in our previous article dealing with him, including attempts at terrorist attacks from the territory of the PRC with the help of drones, which he recognized himself, and the fact that, according to defector Hong Gang Chol, in their circle the plan to deliver objects infected with coronavirus to the North was quite discussed: “People in the defector community did talk about it. Sending contaminated items will only hurt other Koreans. Basic human decency tells you that even an enemy should not be treated that way.”

In 2020, Park’s activities caused problems in inter-Korean relations. More precisely, the “Olympic thaw” prohibited hostile actions against each other, but for a while the South did not prevent the leaflet-launchers, in parallel explaining to the North that it was a democracy and they could not just go ahead and ban it. Against this background, from April to June 2020, the Fighters launched a total of 500,000 leaflets to the North.

As a result, Kim Yo-jong virtually slammed her fist on the table, after which the North blew up the inter-Korean communications office in Kaesong. She also promised a similar retaliation if the leaflet launches continued. After this, Moon Jae-in regained his senses and did what he should have done in the early days of the Olympic thaw. In July 2020, the Ministry of Unification revoked the licenses of two North Korean defector groups, including the Fighters for Free North Korea, saying that their leafleting campaigns were “seriously impeding” unification efforts and threatening the safety of South Koreans in the border areas.

Park Sang-hak was, roughly speaking, stripped of his accreditation (which deprived the Fighters of the right to various benefits available to registered organizations and made fundraising from sponsors difficult) and dragged through the courts, and an additional clause was added to the law on inter-Korean exchanges that banned the launch of leaflets across the border as an act potentially dangerous to residents of the border areas from which the launches took place. Under the new ban, violators face up to three years in prison or a maximum fine of 30 million won ($23,700).

The explanation is simple – the northerners have repeatedly promised to respond to such launches with fire. And there is a high probability that the balloon launchers will depart and the North Korean bullets and missiles will be “intercepted” by the locals. The punishment was quite substantial, but Park Sang-Hak did not relent and, depending on the political situation, sometimes the police detained the “activists,” but more often they managed to launch balloons.

Of course, the law has been widely criticized by Western “human rights” organizations, which have been feeding Park Sang-hak, and by conservative officials, including Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration. His unification minister, Kwon Young-se, criticized the law as malignant and a violation of the right to freedom of expression even before he took office.

Not surprisingly, after the conservatives came to power, Park felt secure in announcing that he was temporarily suspending the dropping of leaflets and propaganda materials in the DPRK. Instead, they will send medications that can help North Koreans in the fight against COVID-19. In fact, instead of medication they chose vitamin C and a cheap painkiller/antipyretic Tylenol, and the anti-Pyongyang propaganda was present anyway.

In all, during 2022, Park said to have sent balloons with leaflets to the North nine times.

The Ministry of Unification responded each time the flyers were launched with demands to refrain from the practice, but each time these were exhortations rather than harsh measures. In June 2022, A spokesman for the ministry, for example, said that such actions violated the law on inter-Korean relations, but in response to a question about whether punishment would follow, he said that relevant bodies would take care of it.

And although on July 7, the police (once again) launched an investigation into the actions of members of the organization that violate the law on the development of inter-Korean relations adopted under the previous administration of the Republic of Korea, there was no talk of Park being taken into custody.

On September 23, 2022 ministry spokeswoman Lee Hye-jong said that the government was concerned that some organizations continued to send leaflets despite repeated calls from the authorities to refrain from such actions. The ministry urged activists to refrain from sending leaflets amid lingering fears that such a campaign could lead to escalation of tension on the peninsula, and promised to take action if Pyongyang staged a “provocation” in response to the launch of leaflets.

Even when Park was apprehended and interrogated in October 2022, he was not detained, and a ministry spokesperson told reporters on condition of anonymity: “We fully understand the group’s efforts to assist the North Koreans, but as the government seeks inter-Korean cooperation in the field of health, we have repeatedly publicly urged them to refrain (from launching), given that this will be real help to the North Koreans.”

Two trials were initiated at the same time. The “fighters” filed a judicial protest against the decision to revoke their accreditation. However, in September 2022, the Seoul Administrative Court upheld the decision of the lower-instance court, stating that the launching of the leaflets was against the public interest of ensuring security in the border areas. On December 8, 2022, the Court of Appeals also ruled in favor of the ministry’s 2020 decision to revoke accreditation.

However, on May 3, 2023, the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the lower courts, additionally stating that “sending leaflets to North Korea plays a positive role in showing North Koreans the reality of their nation’s regime, calling attention to their human rights situation.” In addition, “is difficult to justify or prove that leafleting puts people’s lives in any danger.”

Thus, Park Sang-hak celebrates victory and promises “together with other like-minded human rights activists to continue spreading truth and freedom in the North.”

At the same time, on November 10, 2022, 23 right-wing NGOs submitted a petition to the Constitutional Court that demanded that the law on inter-Korean exchanges be revised and the 2020 amendments be removed from it. An important point in their petition was the opinion of Unification Minister Kwon Young-se, which argues that sending out such materials is “political activity” and its prohibition may constitute a violation of freedom of political activity or expression.  In addition, the terms used in the law, including those that prohibit any activities in border areas that could cause “injury to life and limb and serious danger,” are worded so vaguely that the law could be applied arbitrarily.

On March 9, 2023 Kwon Yong-se again criticized the law, as absolutely malignant, and noted that if the ruling People’s Power party wins the 2024 parliamentary elections, the relevant bans will probably be removed from it.

Thus, the law on banning leaflets is currently awaiting the decision of the Constitutional Court; in parallel, the Conservatives are waiting for the parliamentary elections, where, if they manage to get a majority, they will try to change the law through the parliamentary procedure. In any case, the author believes that the law will be repealed and this will untie the hands of the hawks. The speed of the process may indeed vary, but it is not a question of “if,” but “when.”

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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