South’s ‘Letters of Truth’ to North Korea Strain Moon’s Diplomacy

South’s ‘Letters of Truth’ to North Korea Strain Moon’s Diplomacy

Seoul, South Korea – “Is South Korea a dictatorship?” asked Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector and leader of the fighters for a free North Korea who regularly sends helium balloons loaded with leaflets at the North across the border. “Is it a free and democratic country?”
Park sent 10 balloons loaded with 500,000 leaflets and 5,000 dollar bills to North Korea at the end of last month. He says he wants North Koreans to know the truth about Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship and for North Koreans to stand up against his regime. The leaflets criticize the dynastic rule of the Kims. The dollar bills encourage people to take the leaflets.

Park has launched such balloons 60 times in the past 10 years. The difference now is that it’s against the law – South Korean law.

“The exclusive ban is a perverse anti-constitutional law,” Park told Al Jazeera.

Park’s balloon launches have often been popular media events.

But in April, he kept the scene of the events secret and sent balloons to border areas in the middle of the night, fearing apprehension by South Korean authorities instructed by the government to restrict his efforts.

On May 6, police raided his office, promising a full investigation.

When he reported to the Seoul Metropolitan Police for questioning four days later, he lambasted the Liberal government and explained what the propaganda leaflets were.

“These are letters from defectors to our families in North Korea. Letters of truth, freedom and love. And now we’re not even allowed to write letters anymore? Park said.

North Korean defector Park Sang-hak prepares to throw a balloon containing leaflets denouncing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a launch in 2016. Such launches are now illegal [File: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]

The “anti-leaflet law”

The launching of balloons containing flyers, CDs, USB drives and other items in 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 convicted.

The Democratic Party and government officials justified the amendment on two points.

First, that the launches endanger the lives of South Koreans living in border areas – in 2014, North Korea trained machine guns on leaflets with bullets landing in South Korea.

Second, the brochures hamper their peacebuilding efforts with North Korea.

During the historic 2018 summits between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the two men agreed to end all hostile acts, including the dissemination 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. next to the North Korean border. The explosion could be seen from the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

Kim Yo Jong also weighed in after Park’s ball launches in April.

“We regard the maneuvers committed by the human scum in the South as a serious provocation against our state and we will examine the corresponding measures,” she said in state media.

Peacebuilding efforts

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has made peacebuilding a pillar of his government’s agenda since his first election in 2017.

North Korea blows up the only recently established joint liaison office after veiled threats over continued balloon launches [File: KCNA via Reuters]

On May 10, he celebrated his fourth year in office, leaving him one last year to somehow help improve inter-Korean affairs.

This can only come with the help of the United States, and this week, Moon will travel to the White House for a summit on May 21 with his American counterpart, Joe Biden.

Analysts expect Moon to focus on getting the United States 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 of the anti-leaflet law.

“It is never desirable to curb inter-Korean relations by violating inter-Korean agreements… the government has no choice but to strictly enforce the laws,” he said.

Washington has only recently completed a review of its policy towards North Korea, placing more emphasis on diplomacy.

The recent controversy surrounding Park and its launches may provide some sort of spoiler for Moon’s plans.

Following the passage of the law in December, human rights groups have drawn criticism on the move. Human Rights Watch argued that activities such as the distribution of leaflets were protected under article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights and other covenants ratified by South Korea.

But some experts suggest a better appreciation of South Korea’s unique circumstances.

“From a foreign perspective, (the law) looks like excessive 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 exchanges,” Professor Chae Jin-won an expert on Korean politics at Kyung Hee University, told Al Jazeera.

Balloon launches have taken place in the media glare before, but Park’s most recent event took place in the dead of night in order to avoid detection. [FIle: Lee Jin-man/AP Photo]

The law and controversy can also affect President Moon’s ability to garner US support to reach out to North Korea and create space for the compromise President Moon advocated.

Last month, US lawmakers convened a special commission to deal with free speech on the Korean Peninsula, with an expressed focus on the “anti-leaflet law.”

The online commission itself has fallen into politics – with President Moon branded as a pro-North Korean authoritarian, limiting the rights of North Korean defectors trying to free captives from their homeland.

“There is nothing more powerful than North Koreans living in freedom in South Korea and reaching out to North Koreans living under the slavery of the Kim regime,” Suzanne Scholte of the Coalition told the commission North Korea for freedom.

Others argued for such testimonies and the actions of the balloon launchers themselves were more geared towards political ends.

“By floating the leaflets with the gathered journalists, they can promote an image of aggressive human rights defenders for North Koreans and receive funds for their work,” said human rights lawyer Jeon Su-mi of the Conciliation and Peace Society.

Jeon also suggested that North Koreans have another access to news from outside via border towns, concluding: “Sending leaflets does not seem to me to be an effective tool to promote human rights in North Korea” .

Turn to the radio

Rather than taking the law like Park Sang-hak, some North Korean desert activists have used other strategies.

Huh Kwang-he arrived in 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 USB sticks to North Korea, but in March began broadcasting on shortwave.

A commemoration last month of the third anniversary of the Panmunjom Declaration between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un near the border village of Panmunjom which separates the two Koreas. The signs read: “The implementation of the Panmunjom declaration and the resumption of inter-Korean cooperation” [FIle: Ahn Young-joon/Pool via Reuters]

“Our aim is to awaken the North Koreans and promote their human rights, so that they can finally assert that they are the masters of their own sovereignty,” Huh told Al Jazeera.

Huh also criticized the South Korean president for implementing a law that restricts his freedom of expression in a way that he says more seriously impedes the human rights of others and the North’s “right to know”. -Koreans.

“By oppressing the North Koreans, it (the South Korean government) looks more like a dictatorship, and ultimately the victims are North Koreans,” he said.

Still, the Moon administration has been steadfast in its intention to curtail the activities of North Korean NGOs in the hope of engaging North Korea in the twilight of its tenure.

During his confirmation hearing on May 7, Moon’s latest candidate for prime minister reiterated the government’s position that the leaflets “threaten the security of our people” and constitute a violation of the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration.

Fighters for a Free North Korea’s Park chose to challenge the law as unconstitutional and filed a criminal complaint against Moon.

Huh aims to keep broadcasting.

“It is a mission of the time entrusted to the North Korean refugees. It cannot be stopped, ”Huh said.


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