We continue to look at the continued release of agitational leaflets released into the DPRK by a variety of anti-North Korean organisations. Through this encounter between the two Koreas we can gauge the state of the relationship between the two countries while also remembering how Seoul’s refusal to stop the groups distributing leaflets may have scuppered any chance of high level talks between the two countries (the first stages of which could have been organised during the visit to Seoul by representatives of the DPRK leadership on the final day of the Asian games).
It is curious how, amid the volatile progression of inter-Korean relations, the painful injections given to the DPRK, i.e. the release of the leaflets, is perceived by the South as a perverted kind of test of sincerity. It is like they are saying: if Pyongyang is actually interested in any kind of dialogue with the South then they will simply turn a blind eye to those meaningless leaflets as they fall from the sky and not go on to slam the proverbial door and halt any kind of progression in talks between the two countries. If they do react badly then Seoul, with a straight face, can turn around and say “We were ready for dialogue, but look how they behave…”
On the other hand, within South Korea there is a growing hostility towards the organisations releasing the leaflets. Society is starting to think that if these organisations’ actions provoke some kind of conflict, even if it is a small-scale border incident, the provocateurs must bear the responsibility for their actions. It is because of this that Seoul has a few times officially prevented the releasing of the leaflets (usually at times of particular tension between the two sides), citing some pretext or other.
However for the time being the situation is as follows: On the night of January 5 the Movement for assistance to North Koreans released 600,000 leaflets from Yeoncheon county, Gyeonggi province. Another 500,000 leaflets were released from Cheorwon county, Gangwon province. As usual the leaflets contained information denouncing the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the country’s political system. Elsewhere the head of the organisation Fighters for a Free North Korea, Park Sang-hak, declared his plans to send 100,000 DVDs and flash drives of the film The Interview to the North. His organisation will be provided with the DVDs and flash drives by an American human rights fund.
South Korea’s Ministry of Unification commented on the leaflet drops by saying that it was impossible for them to take any action to stop the dissemination of leaflets in light of the fact that they had not received any advance warning of it happening. Seoul’s position remains unchanged; they believe that Pyongyang must remain open to the renewal of inter-Korean dialogue, regardless of the leaflets being sent over the border.
At the same time, at a session of the State Commission on Human Rights, it was decided that it would be a restriction on freedom of speech to halt the releasing of leaflets into the North; that the South Korean government should not try to impede similar attempts to spread leaflets. Members of the committee confirmed that the releasing of leaflets into North Korea is in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Therefore any attempts by the South Korean government to disrupt the dissemination of leaflets would be equal to an attack on human rights. However, during the same session, arguments arose due to the fact that the actions of those non-governmental organisations are placing the future security of citizens who live near the border at risk; specifically those who live close to where the leaflets are released from.
On the other hand in June 2014, the defector and missionary Lee Min-bok filed a lawsuit against the South Korean government for causing him moral harm; he asserted that the government’s attempts to stop the release of leaflets to the North caused him psychological damage. Despite this, the district court for the city of Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi province, refused his claim, stating that the government was acting within the law when stopping the spreading of leaflets over the border. To be precise the dissemination of leaflets is legal, however if it places the lives of citizens of South Korea under threat, then the government retains the right to step in.
The current situation has provoked much debate in South Korean society over how to deal with this particular kind of activist. It is plain to see that the effectiveness of trying to democratise North Korea in this way is minimal, in fact it often has the opposite effect. The DPRK has opened fire several times on locations where the leaflets have been released from. Indeed there is even the suspicion that these activists are simply trying to prevent any kind of thaw in the relations between the North and South, and in one way or another they want to provoke an intensified conflict between the two countries.
Meanwhile the situation regarding the potential dispatch of DVDs and flash drives containing the scandalous film The Interview is still unfolding. On January 9, during the course of a regular briefing, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Unification stated that the government of South Korea does not plan to officially request that Fighters for a Free North Korea halt the delivery of the 100,000 DVDs and flash drives. Furthermore the spokesperson commented upon Park Sang-hak’s readiness to accommodate the government demands if it so decides to officially reprimand him. In light of this, the government intends to call on Park Sang-hak to act in a more considered manner, and to also stress that the people who live close to the points where the agitational leaflets are released from should not be placed in any danger. The Press Secretary for the Ministry of Unification of South Korea, Lim Byeong Cheol, when addressing the activists, requested that they make the ‘wise’ decision.
On January 19, the aforementioned Lee Min-bok, while representing a coalition of non-governmental groups, made the decision to yield to government pressure and to stop sending balloons loaded with leaflets into North Korea. “We fully understand the difficult situation that the government finds itself in. We have temporarily agreed to refrain from sending any more anti-Pyongyang agitational leaflets over the border with North Korea.”-as reported by the newspaper ChosunIlbo.
Park Sang-hak has also stated that his organisation is deciding whether to refrain from sending out any more propaganda. “We are ready to stop what we are doing if it helps our country, however the final decision will only be made after discussing the issue with the human rights group from the USA who are distributing the comedy DVDs.” A telling statement which reveals who really holds the power in that organisation.
To this ongoing saga there is yet another statement to be added, this time issued from the government after several US citizens joined a local group who were releasing leaflets over the border: “The authorities cannot stop foreign activists joining in with efforts to spread these leaflets onto the territory of the DPRK. Such a ban would be an infringement on free speech”.
Meanwhile the DPRK submitted a complaint regarding the behaviour of South Korea to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). According to Pyongyang, the systematic release of leaflets onto North Korea’s territory represents an aviation hazard. The Press Secretary of the ICAO, Anthony Philbin said “The ICAO has received from the DPRK a complaint relating to the dissemination of leaflets on her territory. The contents of the complaint have since been relayed to the government of South Korea”. Philbin subsequently refused to answer further questions from journalists, citing a busy schedule and a lack of time. He avoided stating ICAO’s position as to whether or not the release of leaflets represented an actual hazard for the safe passage of passenger aircraft in North Korea. As suggested by South Korea, the international organisation did not want to be dragged into a dispute between the two Koreasб which has serious political and diplomatic roots.
There is no clear end in sight; however some activists are putting together a new weapon to bring down the North Korean regime: copies of the American hit TV series Friends which they plan to distribute by smuggling across the border, with the added help of leaflets of course.
Konstantin Asmolov, candidate of historical sciences, senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.