08.06.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Problem of Propaganda Leaflets: US Concerns and New Provocations


The author has repeatedly pointed out that one of the serious factors destabilizing inter-Korean relations is the activities of anti-North Korean NGOs that send obscene and inappropriate leaflets across the border. This is mostly done by the “Fighters for a Free North Korea,” led by the controversial defector Park Sang-Hak.

Following the events of the summer of 2020, when North Korea slammed its fist on the table and backed up its demands with the bombing of the inter-Korean communications center in Kaesong, the ROK parliament passed an amendment to the Inter-Korean Exchange Act in December, which went into effect at the end of March. Distribution of leaflets containing anti-North Korean propaganda across the North-South border is now prohibited, with the maximum penalty for violating the ban being up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 30 million won (approximately $27,000).

In theory, such a law should have been passed back in 2018, when, amid the “Olympic warming,” the parties agreed to stop all hostilities. However, fearing criticism from conservatives, the law was formally adopted not in fulfillment of the inter-Korean agreements, which by now are at a stalemate, but to ensure the safety of residents in the border areas, as the DPRK has repeatedly stated that it will meet the leaflets with fire. It could mean not only attempts to shoot down balloons, but also attacks on the regions where the launch comes from.

Naturally, the law was criticized both by conservative forces in the ROK, who dubbed it the “Kim Yo-jong Law,” and by anti-Pyongyang human rights NGOs. So, on February 20, 2021, Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the ban, noting that it restricts freedom of speech. According to Human Rights Watch, the law “imposes strict limitations to some activities of North Korean escapee and civil society organizations that aim to send and receive information and ideas to people in North Korea.” All the while “most of these restricted activities are protected by the freedom of expression recognized in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which South Korea ratified in 1990.”

In response, on March 9, the Ministry of Unification released guidelines for the new law and clarified a few things. In particular, it was noted that the law applies only to sending leaflets or other items across the inter-Korean border and does not apply when items are sent from a third country.

On March 31, the ministry reiterated its position: North Korean people’s access to outside information should be increased, but “it is still not desirable that such efforts are made in a way that would hurt the rights of other people and the lives, bodies and peace of the people living in border regions”.

American conservatives, however, were not satisfied with such explanations.   On April 15, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a public hearing on the matter, at which witnesses and experts spoke. Including human rights activist Suzanne Scholte, who reportedly sponsored Park Sang-Hak and even personally took part in some of the launches. The chairman of the DPRK Freedom Coalition announced back in December 2020 that “lawmakers in South Korea are taking directions from the sister of a dictator”.

The announcement of the upcoming hearing noted that the law as passed was “highly controversial” and “could interfere with efforts to promote human rights in North Korea, including US government-funded programs such as the distribution of USB drives containing information about the outside world.”

The South Korean conservative media came out with headlines like “my God, what a shame.”  Conservative publicists wrote that Seoul had allowed North Korean defectors and other activists to smuggle anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border for more than a decade.

On the other hand, leftist South Korean politicians and NGOs condemned the hearings and even called them interference in the internal affairs of the Republic of Korea. The choice of April 15 (Kim Il-Sung’s birthday) was also considered a deliberate provocation.

The Ministry of Unification, however, has not given it much weight, saying that the commission is closer to a study group than to a government body and the congressional hearings will have no effect on the alliance between Seoul and Washington.

Despite Seoul’s misgivings, the hearings did not stop, although both co-chairs of the commission expressed concern about the law.

James McGovern expressed hope that the ROK Parliament “decides to fix the bill. Again, that’s the advantage of living in a democracy. There’s always a chance for a redo”. McGovern noted that those who support the law justify it on security grounds, and drew a clear distinction between support for free speech and what he called dissatisfaction with Moon Jae-in’s policy of engagement with North Korea, but criticized the law for using vague and overly broad language.

Christopher Smith, who initiated the hearing, said he was alarmed by the “South Korea’s democratic decay” and the fact that the law blocks North Koreans from receiving information about religion and culture. Touching on accusations that the hearings constituted interference in another country’s internal affairs, Smith said Congress has a duty to speak out when civil rights violations occur. Smith also said that Moon Jae-in’s government overstepped its authority by passing a law restricting freedom of expression and politicized prosecutors to put pressure on civilian organizations sending propaganda material to the North.

Commission member Young Kim recalled that balloons that used to fly across the border provided North Koreans with at least minimal information about the outside world, and expressed concern that such information is no longer available.

This raises the question of what the semi-pornographic images of Kim Jong-un’s wife have to do with religion, culture, and information, especially since it is possible to find pictures of Park Sang-hak’s leaflets on the Internet.

What is more interesting is that the experts who spoke were divided, and in a very non-trivial way at that. Whereas the law was opposed by professional propagandists and loudmouths, it was supported by people more familiar with the situation in North Korea.

Lawyer and political observer Gordon Chang has stated that freedom in South Korea is threatened and Moon Jae-in was “reversing decades of democratization” as he intends to make South Korean society more like the North. Chang also linked the law against leaflet launching to another law that prohibits defamation of the 1980 democratic movement (the Gwangju uprising), modeled on European laws on punishment for Holocaust denial. According to Chang, in this way Moon is trying to criminalize free speech for the sake of “government-established historical truth.”

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the “Committee on Human Rights in North Korea” in Washington, D.C., noted that the main significance of the hearing is that the United States really cares about the state of democracy, freedom and human rights in South Korea.

However, South Korean human rights activists and representatives of organizations that directly “work in the field” stated that the flyers are not only unnecessarily provocative, but do little to promote human rights in the DPRK, rather putting those who have dealt with such content in danger.

As human rights activist and chairwoman of the Reconciliation and Peace Society activist group Jeong Soo-mi said, “The leaflets only exacerbated the suffering of North Koreans instead of advancing their human rights.”

Jessica Lee, an East Asia Fellow at the Quincy Institute of Government, also pointed out that propaganda leaflets have done little to advance human rights in North Korea, while posing a major threat to what she called fragile peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

In the end, of the five experts and witnesses, three (Chang, Scholte, and Scarlatoiu) condemned the law, and two (Jeong Soo-mi and Jessica Lee) spoke in favor of it.

Meanwhile, there are rumors that another set of amendments will be made to the law on inter-Korean exchanges, tightening the exchange of electronic information. Supposedly, to send or receive e-mails, video files, scanned books, etc. via the Internet or on USB drives, the user must now obtain the prior approval of the Ministry of Unification. Although this restriction technically works both ways, the conservative media viewed it as another attempt to limit propaganda to the North.

On April 22, Tomas Ojea Quintana, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, along with three other rapporteurs, sent a special letter to the South Korean government, demanding more information on the compliance of the “Kim Yo-jong Law” with international human rights law. Quintana expressed concern that a ban on leaflet distribution could affect the “legitimate activities” of South Korean nongovernmental organizations.

On April 23, the “Fighters for a Free North Korea” announced their plans to send a new batch of leaflets across the border. According to Park Sang-hak, the batch numbered half a million flyers, one-dollar bills totaling $5,000, and propaganda pamphlets. “The leaflets will include a message criticizing their three-generation hereditary dictatorship and telling them to give out at least the minimum amount of food required for North Korean people,” said Park Sang-hak.

The Ministry of Unification, however, did not respond to such actions and only stated that it would “manage the situation” in cooperation with the police and other relevant authorities.

On April 30, Park Sang-hak told reporters that between April 25 and 29, 10 large balloons flew across the inter-Korean border from unidentified border areas in Gyeonggi and Gangwon provinces. As proof, Pak produced video recordings that allegedly captured those very launches.

On May 2, the KCNA indirectly confirmed this by releasing a statement of Kim Yo-jong, deputy head of the CPC Central Committee and “first sister”: “The defectors” have again committed an unpardonable and provocative act, although we have repeatedly warned the South Korean authorities about the grave consequences of their failure to address the issue.  And if this is the case, “we can no longer sit idly by,” and “no matter what decisions we make or what actions we take, the responsibility for the possible consequences rests entirely with the South Korean authorities.”

So far, however, the South Korean military claims that no suspicious DPRK activity has been noticed even at the level of installation of loudspeakers, not to mention mass rallies or preparation of its flotilla of balloons with leaflets and garbage, which was planned to be sent to the South in the summer of 2020. But the author is far more concerned about the actions of the police and the Ministry of Unification. The police chief did not order a “quick and thorough investigation” until May 3, although theoretically some action to prevent the violation of the law could have been initiated when Park Sang-hak & Co. first announced their plans.

The Ministry of Unification also stated, on the one hand, that it was “studying the issue” and would deal with it in accordance with the “spirit of the law” and, on the other hand, urged everyone to refrain from actions that would increase tensions. The official view is that “we will first have to find out where and when the video of the alleged launch was taken, and if illegal activities are found, the issue will be dealt with according to the law”.

In summarizing these important events, the author draws attention to two key points. First, there has been no unequivocal condemnation of the “Kim Yo-jong Law”, even in the United States. Second, Park Sang-hak & Co. have openly violated the new law that prohibits sending leaflets across the border. Moreover, since it was a batch of 500,000 leaflets, such an action could not be conducted covertly and completely unnoticed by the South Korean authorities.

Two equally unpleasant conclusions follow from this. Either Moon Jae-in has become such a “lame duck” that those who are supposed to enforce the law blatantly ignore his orders. Or, after the American hearings (although they did not lead to unequivocal condemnation of Seoul, and opinions were divided), Moon Jae-in understood the American hint and gave orders to ignore the activists.

Meanwhile, the April leaflet launch has very unpleasant foreign policy implications. First, it badly undermines Moon’s reputation and prestige as both a negotiator and a leader, nullifying all of his current and future initiatives. North Koreans have long been looking at facts, not words, and got another confirmation that the president of the ROK “is not in fact at the wheel.”

Secondly, Kim Yo-jong made it pretty clear in her statement that in such a situation “we won’t sit idly by,” and that means likely retaliation. What kind of retaliation — we will have to wait and see.

Third, the author is troubled by the news of the summer of 2020, when a defector leaked to the leftist press in ROK that circles affiliated with Park Sang-hak were seriously discussing a plan to bring COVID-19 into North Korea through contaminated materials that were to be sent across the border with leaflets. The author VERY much hopes that this project did not go beyond discussions or encounter technical difficulties, because otherwise Park Sang-hak & Co. would claim to be people who “for the great goal of reunifying Korea” resorted to terrorism using bio-weapons. What is worth noting is that, if this happens and will be confirmed, then from the standpoint of international law it is an unequivocal casus belli.

Of course, let’s hope it won’t come to that, though in any case the April launch of the leaflets may cause dangerous developments on the peninsula, and the author will be watching the situation very closely.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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