Leaflet Ban Is a Violation of Free Speech

  • By Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University, Senior Fellow in Human Freedom at George W. Bush Institute, and Korea Chair at CSIS in Washington, D.C.

    January 05, 2021 13:46

    Victor Cha

    It is a common belief that the most significant result of the Sunshine Policy under President Kim Dae-jung was the improvement of inter-Korean relations, manifest in projects like the Kaesong Industrial Complex and tours to Mt. Kumgang. This is not true. The most important change was to open political space for conservatives and progressives to debate North Korea policy. The recent legislation passed by the National Assembly banning the sending of propaganda leaflets to North Korea has closed this space in a way that is anathema to the spirit of the Sunshine Policy.

    The most important change, in my opinion, wrought by Kim's policies was the "democratization" of domestic views on North Korea. Prior to the Sunshine policy, Koreans were not permitted to have anything other than a uniform, hardline posture imposed by authoritarian, anti-communist governments. Indeed, the draconian National Security Law deemed it an act of sedition to voice any other opinion. The Sunshine Policy was important because it widened the spectrum of opinion to make engagement a politically legitimate viewpoint. It "democratized" the North Korea narrative in the South -- anyone could say positive or negative things about the regime without fear of retribution.

    But the legislation passed by the National Assembly this month has taken things full circle. South Koreans must once again watch what they say about North Korea, especially if they are critical of the way the regime treats its own people. The law imposes fines of up to W30 million and up to three-year jail sentences for sending leaflets, USB sticks, Bibles and money across the 38th Parallel into North Korea. Ruling-party politicians like Song Young-gil and Unification Minister Lee In-young have defended the law with two arguments. First, that it is meant to protect residents of villages near the border from North Korean retaliation, and second, that the balloons need to be stopped because they are a form of "psychological warfare," which violates inter-Korean accords dating back to 1990.

    Both are specious arguments. It is true that the North Korean leadership does not like the leaflets. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's sister Yo-jong last summer targeted the activity in a diatribe against the South Korean government and demanded that the practice be banned. But the North did not threaten to retaliate against the border villages from where activists carried out their work. Indeed, is it not a tactic of North Korea’s to target South Korean citizens as this would create popular resentment. Instead, retaliation (to the extent it happens at all) will be carried out against military or official targets. That is why the regime blew up the inter-Korean liaison office after Kim Yo-jong's complaints about the balloons. The shootings that have occurred along the border recently have been of the North Korean military firing at their own soldiers who tried to defect to the South, or shooting a South Korean official who was found adrift in North Korean waters.

    Referring to human rights activities as "psychological warfare" is a misnomer. "Psy ops" are military and intelligence activities carried out by a government against an enemy target. For example, broadcasting from loudspeaker walls across the DMZ, an operation conducted by the government, is a psy op. Non-governmental protests, demonstrations, or balloon launches undertaken by regular citizens are a form of free expression. To claim otherwise would be tantamount to saying that the Black Lives Matter protests, burning effigies of U.S. President Donald Trump in front of the White House, are a form a psy op.

    The Unification Ministry has also claimed that the balloons that have drifted back into the border villages on the southern side place the burden of cleanup on the inhabitants, but this is not a psy op, nor a pretext for North Korean retaliation. It is a littering problem. The reality is that the balloon launch ban is part of a broader effort by the government to roll back human rights activities. Previous progressive South Korean governments practiced a sort of benign neglect of these organizations. They did not particularly like the way these organizations criticized Pyongyang because it might negatively impact inter-Korean relations, but they did not actively seek to persecute them.

    This is of a different order. Many organizations tell me that there is a determined effort to stifle any criticism in South Korea of the ways the North Korean regime abuses its people. The Unification Ministry has conducted widespread audits of at least 25 human rights and resettlement civic organizations, and has required over 60 NGOs to submit documentation to the ministry as a pretext for possibly revoking their registrations.

    The South Korean government has also cut off access for North Korean human rights NGOs to the government-run resettlement center for defectors, Hanawon, which is an important way to collect oral and eyewitness testimony of abuses inside the North. The budget put forward by the South Korean government, moreover, has reduced funding for the North Korean Human Rights Foundation by over 90 percent. Legal bans, defunding, de-licensing, and cutting off access -- these are not policies of benign neglect, they are an aggressive campaign to stifle speech.

    Of course, I understand that the South Korean government is looking to remove obstacles to inter-Korean cooperation as they try to regenerate the momentum created by the summit diplomacy in 2018 and 2019. But trying to silence South Korean civilian support for a better life for their brethren in the North is a self-defeating policy. True inter-Korean reconciliation will be best served by people in the North knowing that there are those in the South and around the world who understand their plight and want to help. It will not be served by North Koreans knowing that the definition of human rights improvement is being restricted to only activities seen as promoting the South Korean government's policies. That is neither the definition of human rights, nor is it the definition of democratic free expression.

    The public silence of American friends should not be taken as a sign of indifference, or an indicator that the South Korean government's talking points on the leaflet law are working or that the response in Washington is being well managed. Out of respect for the alliance, many Americans have been speaking privately, not publicly, about their concerns, but for how long they will keep mum remains unclear. Many in Washington are perturbed at the extent of the actions and have voiced their concerns to the incoming Biden administration.

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