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Seoul's crackdown on propaganda against Pyongyang slammed

July 21, 2020

South Korean Unification Ministry revokes licenses of activist groups to send balloons into the North, triggering accusations that Seoul is not truly interested in the well-being of ordinary people in the North.

Seoul's crackdown on propaganda against Pyongyang slammed
North Korean defector groups in South Korea have repeatedly floated balloons over the Demilitarized Zone into the NorthImage: picture-alliance/Yonhap

Human rights campaigners have reacted angrily to the decision by the South Korean government to revoke the licenses of two groups of North Korean defectors, with their protests broadly supported by analysts and international human rights organizations who say the campaign of sending propaganda into the North has proved effective in informing and educating residents of the isolated nation.     

The Unification Ministry in Seoul withdrew the operation permits of the two groups on Friday, saying in a statement that the defectors' regular release of balloons carrying propaganda leaflets, memory sticks containing television programs and movies, small amounts of rice and dollar bills only served to "gravely hinder" efforts to achieve unification. 

Read more: Korean War anniversary: Are North and South close to another military confrontation?

The two groups, Kuensaem and Fighters for a Free North Korea, have repeatedly floated helium-filled balloons over the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea, most recently in late June and in defiance of the South Korean government's request that they stop their activities. 

On June 4, North Korea released a strongly worded statement demanding that Seoul stop defectors from sending propaganda to the North, a demand that the government of President Moon Jae-in immediately agreed to. That was not, apparently, sufficient for Pyongyang, which subsequently blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong. 

Hindrance to campaign

Withdrawing the groups' permits will make it more difficult for them to raise funds to carry out their other campaigns, which include efforts to improve the human rights of North Korean people, and make the organizations ineligible for government support programs. 

Seoul's position is that sending propaganda into the North goes beyond the reasons for the groups' establishment and only serves to worsen cross-border relations. It has been claimed that local residents could be injured or killed if the North decides to retaliate against launches with artillery fire, while the government also insists that balloons that come down in the South cause pollution. 

"The act of scattering leaflets and goods by these entities … gravely hindered the government's unification policies and efforts towards unification, jeopardized the lives and safety of residents in border regions and created a tense situation on the Korean Peninsula," the Unification Ministry said in a statement. 

The government has also indicated that it intends to investigate at least 25 more civic groups, including 13 made up primarily of North Korean defectors, to determine whether they should also have their operating permits canceled. 

Read more: What's driving North Korea's aggression toward the South?

"I do not think that this government is genuinely interested in human rights in North Korea," Song Young-chae, a professor at Seoul's Samgmyung University, told DW. "There is nothing that these two groups have done that threatens reunification," said Song, who is also an activist with The Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea — an organization that has also sent balloons into the North. 

"On the contrary, the information and help that are being sent into the North will help to bring reunification because they are serving to increase awareness about the regime that they live under and the rest of the world outside their borders.

"It's teaching them about freedom, about the lives that other people live, about what we in the South have," he said. "That is what is going to help bring about reunification."

Song added that many North Korean defectors confirm after reaching the South that they were encouraged to flee their homeland after seeing leaflets detailing the excesses of the lives of the privileged elite in Pyongyang and the amount that the impoverished nation was spending on nuclear weapons while so many of the ordinary people are malnourished.

'Make North Korea happy'

"The South Korean government does not really care about human rights," Song said. "All they want to do is to make the North Korean regime happy, and that is ironic because President Moon [Jae-in] was a human rights lawyer before he went into politics." 

Those beliefs are shared elsewhere, with an editorial in Monday's edition of The Korea Herald accusing the government of "pandering to demands from the North." 

"Catering to demands from Pyongyang will make it harder to achieve practical and substantial progress in inter-Korean relations over the long term and ensure lasting peace on the peninsula," it added. "Adding to this course of action could increase criticism that the Moon government feels more concerned about the safety of the Kim regime than the suffering ordinary North Koreans are forced to endure." 

Seoul's decision to revoke the groups' operation licenses is a violation of freedom of speech and expression, Thor Halvorssen, president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, was quoted by The Korea Herald as saying in a recent interview with a local media outlet. 

He said his organization is seeking to raise the matter at the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which investigates cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, if the Korean prosecutors go ahead and indict the two defector groups.

In a letter sent to South Korean President Moon on June 12, the group said it was "appalled and alarmed" at the decision and accused Seoul of failing to meet the standard of a liberal democracy "but instead sliding dangerously into authoritarianism, in which civil activism and free speech are routinely suppressed."


UN 'disappointment'

The UN office in Seoul also expressed its disappointment with the government's position, with the head of the bureau telling local media that she believes that the defectors' groups "intentions are very genuine." 

The North Korea Freedom Coalition has similarly sent a letter of protest to President Moon, calling on his government to "protect, rather than target, human rights activists," a position echoed by Human Rights Watch Asia, describing the failure of the South to stand up for the rights of people in the North as "shameful."

Rah Jong-yil, a former diplomat and senior intelligence official charged with monitoring North Korea, told DW that the South's response to Pyongyang's demands is a mistake.

"Both sides — North and South — have been sending propaganda over the border for decades," he pointed out. "But suddenly Pyongyang takes issue and demands that Seoul act to stop the balloons and the South effectively does as it is told. This is a political and tactical maneuver by the North that makes them look stronger and Seoul weaker because it is only trying to curry favor."

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea