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South Korea to let in North's propaganda-heavy media

Julian Ryall
October 18, 2022

People in South Korea seem set to gain access to North Korean media as Seoul officials prepare to lift a decades-long ban. But many in the South wonder at the timing of the move amid provocations from Pyongyang.

A man stands before a screen in Seoul, watching a news broadcast about North Korea launching a missile over Japan
South Korean citizens have been banned from accessing North Korean news sources directlyImage: Kim Hong-Ji/REUTERS

Tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang are high, with North Korea firing missiles, conducting air exercises, and reportedly preparing its first nuclear test since 2017.

At the same time, Seoul is preparing what could be seen as an olive branch to the North's regime — the South Korean government aims to revise a law that dates back to 1948, banning the dissemination of North Korean media in the South.

Government officials say that lifting the ban on Pyongyang's newspapers, television programs and internet content will encourage cross-border understanding and potentially foster detente.  

North Korea marks 'Victory Day'

Analysts agree that the legislation is outdated and ineffective in the modern era, but question why the government wants to change at a time of rising tensions on the peninsula.

What happens when the law is changed?

The National Security Act dictates punishments for activities that promote or are in favor of the North Korean regime or, more broadly, communism. The law has been criticized in South Korea as a tool that enabled governments — particularly the military dictatorships in the years immediately after South Korean independence in 1945 — to crack down on any form of dissent. 

Plans to revise the legislation are expected to progress rapidly as the left-leaning main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Korea, has previously indicated that it agrees that the ban should be scrapped. 

Immediately after the revisions are passed in the national assembly, South Koreans will be permitted to access newspapers, such as the Rodong Sinmun, the official publication of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, and the Joson Inmingun, the newspaper of the Korean People's Army.

The output of the state-run Korea Central News Agency will also be available, along with television programs and other state-controlled news sites such as Uriminzokkiri.  

'Virtually no one in the South would like to live there'

Kim Sang-woo, a member of the board of the Kim Dae-jung Peace Foundation which aims to help reunification between the two Koreas, dismissed the idea that viewing North Korean news would encourage support for the regime of Kim Jong Un

"I think the South Korean public is mature enough to recognize the propagandistic side of North Korean media," he said. "And while there are always going to be some in South Korean society who are pro-North Korea no matter what, I believe news from the North will reinforce our understanding of the sort of society that it is and that virtually no-one in the South would like to live there."

The former politician believes lifting the legal ban on North Korean media "will cause a brief sensation but that will very quickly die down again."

The National Security Act has remained untouched for such a long time because "policy towards North Korea has been very rigid," Kim told DW, despite conservatives and left-leaning politicians clashing over the best way to deal with the nuclear-armed state on their border. While "progressives" advocated engagement and assistance to the North, successive right-of-center administrations have taken a harder line, particularly amid Pyongyang's military provocations.  

Park Jung-won, a professor of international law at South Korea's Dankook University, agrees that the North Korean propaganda is designed for a "brainwashed" domestic audience and unlikely to convince many in the South to switch their allegiance to the impoverished dictatorship in the North.  

"I do not think it will serve to influence anyone because it is so clearly propaganda, but I do wonder why the Unification Ministry is promoting this plan at this moment," he said. "The government has not fully explained its motivations for this and, for me, it is strange because it comes at a time of great security problems and challenges on the peninsula."

Government urged to give more information

"The government needs to explain why it is necessary to change the law when there are so many tensions surrounding us," Park said.  

The professor for international law says he fears the government is "not paying sufficient attention to the security problems" that hang over the nation and suggests that Seoul should focus more on ensuring the well-being and safety of citizens rather than providing them with access to the North's propaganda.  

"If the government wanted to reintroduce US tactical nuclear weapons into the South, then they would have to explain to the public why that decision was being made and how it would be beneficial to the nation," he said. "It's the same with the North's propaganda; people need to understand why this has become a priority for the government."

Edited by: Darko Janjevic