South Korea strikes a blow against freedom of information

Special to

By Donald Kirk

South Korean leadership, by banning defectors from launching balloons wafting leaflets over North Korea, has struck a devastating blow against free speech and freedom of information in both Koreas.

The anti-leaflet legislation is inspiring an adverse reaction not only in Seoul but also at the United Nations and in Washington, where members of congress are denouncing it for compromising basic human rights.

The most meaningful response undoubtedly was the plea by Tomas Ojea Quintana, UN special rapporteur on human rights in the North, for the South’s national assembly to reverse course and repeal the amendment to the law on inter-Korean relations that would impose fines and prison sentences on those daring to launch more leaflets along with candy bars, dollar bills, even electronic devices to enable listening to broadcasts from South Korea, maybe also the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. For Quintana, who attacks outrageous violations of human rights in the North, to find fault with South Korea for enacting such a measure was a shocking reminder of the seriousness of this assault on the rights of defectors.

A North Korean defector group in South Korea prepares to float balloons carrying information leaflets and other items into North Korea in 2016.

Quintana, who has previously criticized South Korea for not supporting UN resolutions condemning North Korea for its record on human rights, sees the bill as unfortunate for two reasons. One is that North Koreans, deprived of any realistic understanding about the origins of the Korean War and the nature of the dictatorship that dominates their lives, are entitled to the news and views contained in these leaflets. The second, of course, is that the organizers, editors and writers of the leaflets have a right to say what they think and disseminate their ideas to people who should know what they have to say. All of them defected by escaping across the Tumen or Yalu (Amnok) rivers to China, risking capture by the Chinese and automatic return to the horrors of a North Korean prison before getting to safety in Vietnam or Thailand or Mongolia en route to South Korea.

These leaflets pack a lot of information on waterproof sheets of plastic. How else are ordinary North Koreans likely to learn that regime founder Kim Il-Sung was a stooge for the Russians, who implanted him in power in 1945 after bringing him to the east coast port of Wonsan on a cargo ship? And how would they know that his grandson, Kim Jong-Un, actually ordered the murder of his older half-brother, Kim Jong-Nam, killed by a VX chemical agent smeared on his face in Kuala Lumpur’s international airport nearly four years ago? These were among topics of articles on leaflets bearing news and information that North Koreans will never hear in their own media.

Clearly the leaflets hit the North Korean leadership where it hurt. North Korea over the years has demanded that South Korea stop defectors from firing them, but no one ever objected so harshly as Kim Jong-Un’s influential younger sister, Kim Yo-jong. Six months ago, she demanded that South Korean leaders “take care of the consequences of evil conduct by the rubbish-like mongrel dogs who took no scruple to slander us while faulting the ‘nuclear issue’ in the meanest way at the most untimely time.”

Just to show Kim Yo-Jong meant what she said, the North Koreans, in one great explosion, destroyed the beautiful new liaison office building inside the abandoned Kaesong Industrial Complex that South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In had bestowed on the North to facilitate coordination between working-level officials on both sides. Rather than express outrage over this irrefutable evidence of the futility of dealing reasonably with North Korea, Moon responded with disappointment and hurt feelings. For Moon and those around him, appeasement would be the likeliest way to restore dialogue, long since suspended, on basic issues including the North’s nuclear program, which Kim Jong-Un has no intention of shutting down.

The notion that North Korea might respond kindly to this approach is sheer fantasy. Chris Smith, a Republican representative from New Jersey, was the first member of congress to come out with a strongly worded attack on the anti-leaflet law even before it was enacted. Voicing “serious concerns over the trajectory in South Korea under President Moon Jae-In,” Smith said the Moon government was guilty of “undue acquiescence not only to the communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – as evidenced by this inane legislation criminalizing humanitarian outreach to North Korea–but also a diplomatic tilt towards communist China.” He was, he said, “troubled that legislators in an ostensibly vibrant democracy would contemplate criminalizing conduct aimed at promoting democracy and providing spiritual and humanitarian succor to people suffering under one of the cruelest communist dictatorships in the world.”

Objections to the legislation are showing signs of becoming a serious embarrassment to Moon and his government. Michael McCaul of Texas, a Republican on the foreign affairs committee of the House of Representatives, summarized the bitter irony of South Korea suppressing free speech at the bidding of North Korea. “A bright future for the Korean Peninsula rests on North Korea becoming more like South Korea, not the other way around,” he said. McCaul clearly believes that members of President-elect Joseph Biden’s Democratic Party will feel much the same way. “Freedom of expression is a core democratic value,” he said, “and bipartisan majorities in the U.S. Congress have long supported efforts to make outside information available in North Korea’s closed dictatorship.”

Now it’s up to the Biden administration to decide how strongly to press the issue of human rights in North Korea. We can only hope that Biden will want to deal more strongly than did Trump, who basically dropped the subject after having spoken out quite strongly about North Korea’s record in his first year as president. Then, in 2018, Trump decided on a totally different approach. In his summit with Kim Jong-Un in Singapore in June of that year, he believed they had become such good friends as to say they “fell in love.” Americans since then have offered only token, pro forma comments on North Korea’s human rights record.

It’s not likely that the U.S. will want to wade into the controversy on an official diplomatic level right away considering the South Korean government’s fierce support for the balloon ban. What else is there to say after the unification ministry expressed “regret” at Quintana’s criticism of the bill. Surely there would be no point in the next secretary of state, Antony Blinken, getting into an exchange with South Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-Wha, who stoutly defended the legislation as needed to prevent nasty incidents along the demilitarized zone.

The controversy, though, is not ending. John Sifton, Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch in New York, summarized the great paradox in the South Korean position. “The South Korean government seems more interested in keeping North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un happy than letting its own citizens exercise their basic rights on behalf of their northern neighbors,” he said. “The bill does a great disservice to the people of both South Korea and North Korea.”

The bipartisan Tom Lantos human rights commission of the U.S. Congress is expected to launch a lengthy discussion on the topic after Biden’s inauguration, and human rights activists everywhere are not going to drop the subject. Eventually, those responsible for the bill may come to realize that muzzling the balloonists was a big mistake.

Don Kirk is a veteran correspondent who writes from Seoul and Washington, D.C.