The author has devoted about ten articles to the activities of Park Sang-hak and his organization Fighters for a Free North Korea (FFNK), who was viewed as being quite dangerous. Recall that some of his alleged “merits” include attempting to send coronavirus-infected items to North Korea, for which he was criticized by other defectors, or launching drones with explosives from the PRC to blow up statues of Kim, which were supposed to be a justification for “humanitarian intervention.”
In 2020, Park & Co.’s activities triggered an inter-Korean crisis, after which the ROK swiftly passed a law that makes delivering propaganda flyers across the border that could endanger the safety and life of border inhabitants illegal by up to three years in prison or a fine of 30 million won. The updated Inter-Korean Relations Development Act went into force in March 2021, but opponents claimed it stifled free speech and started a campaign to have it repealed. Park Sang-hak’s group, among others, filed a constitutional petition opposing the bill on the day it became public. 27 additional conservative NGOs followed suit.
Moreover, due to tensions on the Korean Peninsula and worries about the safety of citizens in border towns, the Ministry of Unification revoked FFNK’s license. The FFNK filed a complaint protesting the decision.
Park gained courage when the conservatives showed up. The Supreme Court declared in April 2023 that anti-North Korean leaflets were quite helpful in educating North Koreans about their reality. Additionally, the court concluded that it was challenging to demonstrate that the anti-North Korean leaflets presented an imminent threat to human life.
In commemoration of the 73rd Anniversary of the Start of the Korean War, Park Sang-hak told Yonhap News Agency that on June 24, at 10 p.m., his organization flew 20 balloons from Gimpo, with roughly 200,000 leaflets, 10,000 face masks, Tylenol tablets, and booklets. In reference to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, banners on the balloons said, “My grandfather invaded the South 73 years ago and I will do so when?”
Despite the officially illegal nature of these activities, this was the third such event that occurred in 2023 without any attempt by the authorities to curtail the activists in any manner.
The Seoul High Court recommended on August 31, 2023, that the government change its 2020 decision to revoke FFNK’s accreditation. The proposal was made after the Supreme Court, in April, overturned two earlier decisions in the ministry’s favor and sent the matter to the High Court for further review.
The Fighters for a Free North Korea distributed propaganda flyers inside balloons to the DPRK on September 20. According to the organization’s representatives, 20 big balloons were launched from Ganghwa Island of Incheon. Activists reportedly connected 20 balloons with a total of 200,000 flyers, 1,000 USB drives, and 200 leaflets praising the ROK and denouncing Kim Jong-un and the North Korean government. “Until the day our compatriots suffering under Kim Jong Un’s tyranny are freed, the anti-DPRK leaflet campaign will continue,” the posters on the balloons read.
On September 26, 2023, the primary impediment on FFNK’s way was removed when the Constitutional Court repealed a regulation prohibiting sending propaganda leaflets to North Korea two and a half years after the law went into force. The statute was declared unconstitutional by the court by a decision of 7-to-2, according to reports in the RoK media, since it unreasonably restricts the constitutionally given right to freedom of expression. Although protecting lives and physical safety is the law’s primary goal, the imposed restriction on people’s right to free speech is out of proportion to this crucial public objective.
The judges pointed out that such a purpose may be attained through alternate methods, such as police intervention or systems that control leaflet distribution, even without a total ban on leaflet distribution.
In addition, in light of the Constitutional Court’s decision, there is speculation that the South Korean government may restart broadcasting to the North Korean side through the loudspeakers that were shut down as part of the inter-Korean military accord on September 19, 2019, by the Min Jae-in administration. Although the authorities can’t help but know that such acts will result in a considerable rise in tensions, it is claimed that Seoul is not currently considering such a prospect, but in the case of more “provocations” by Pyongyang, such a step is extremely conceivable. North Korea has regularly threatened to hit the loudspeakers, and in 2014, the North fired from anti-aircraft guns at leaflet-filled balloons that were traveling north close to the western border with the ROK.
The repeal of the law infected the conservative camp with frantic euphoria, and publications like the Korea Herald published articles with titles like “The right choice eventually prevails” and “Evil cannot last.” They contend that the previous Moon administration passed a law that imprisons South Koreans while groveling to the North and that, in good conscience, everyone involved in enacting the unlawful law ought to be punished, including the left-leaning members of the Constitutional Court who issued their decision so tardily and perhaps as a result of the replacement of two judges under the current Yoon Suk-yeol administration. This situation, according to the author, is exceedingly dangerous.
First, it focuses on one of the most significant consequences of inter-Korean warming as an attempt to legislate the removal of the most painful and harmful kind of hostile propaganda. As a reminder, the law does not oppose leaflet throwing in general. It only addressed cross-border ballooning, something local communities have always rejected and resisted. They argued that activists would launch balloons and then leave, placing locals in danger if North Korea opened fire on the area. However, their voices are no longer desired to be heard.
Second, it is safe to assume that the approval Park and his allies have received will be interpreted as a recognition of their total impunity considering the risky things they have already done. The state would then be obligated to respond to his initiative, which may lead to dangerous consequences, which would be an extremely disastrous time.
Simply put, Park Sang-hak and his men don’t give any consideration about the lives of common South Koreans, especially those who don’t have a burning desire to die for the abolition of the DPRK. He can easily sacrifice them by staging a big leaflet drop and thus provoking the North Koreans into taking the kind of severe acts they have long promised and, given their current position, are certain to do. After that, the South Korean government will have to respond to North Korean measures, which will result in an increase in tensions. And Park Sang-hak will continue to add fuel to the fire until they reach a critical point.
No one can guarantee that those who really considered using bioterrorism against North Korea won’t try to carry out a similar act of sabotage using a different method. It would be wonderful if South Korean authorities could subtly halt them, because if this were to happen: Naturally, official Seoul will be held accountable by North Korea rather than a band of outlaws, if only because, in Pyongyang’s eyes, the government had all the power and opportunities to put an end to the provocation and bring the provocateurs to court.
The author has repeatedly emphasized that while there are plenty of pragmatists in Pyongyang and Seoul who are eager to raise the stakes without going over the line, there is still a high risk of war owing to miscommunications, a frayed nerve, or other factors. Park Sang-hak’s unrestrained hands raise that possibility significantly. And even if their activities spark a large-scale crisis, he and his supporters are unlikely to suffer personal consequences.
In any case, unlike the unidentified snipers of Moscow in 1993 or Kiev in 2014, the names of these warmongers will be known.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.