In this file photo, North Korean defectors launch anti-NK balloons carrying leaflets near the DMZ in South Korea. Photo: AFP

The flak was flying thick and fast after South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s party rammed through legislation that criminalized civic groups sending anti-North Korean messages over the border.

The step, which had long been in preparation and falls in line with North Korean demands, has ignited a fierce debate in the South along the fault lines of dovish-hawkish policies toward North Korea.

The liberal Democratic Party of Korea railroaded the bill through the Assembly late on Monday, using the absolute majority it won in April general elections. The conservative opposition, the People’s Power Party attempted filibusters, with PPP Assemblyman Thae Yong-ho, a prominent North Korean defector, unleashing a 10-hour speech.

“It’s a law aimed at joining hands with Kim Jong Un and leaving North Korean residents enslaved for good,” he thundered.

In the unicameral, 300-seat National Assembly, the DPK holds 174 seats, the PPP occupies 103, while independents or minority parties have 23. The DPK, with some support from other parties, passed the legislation by 187 votes in favor and one abstention. There were no votes against after the PPP walked out of the chamber in protest.

Under the legislation, those who dispatch propaganda across the border are subject to fines of 30 million won ($27,000) or up to three years in prison.

The DPK says the move is essential to ensure national security, but have also cited complaints about the activity from residents of the border areas.  Many of the balloons – as well as plastic bottles that are floated toward North Korea – land in the South, generating litter and nuisance.

Opponents accuse the ruling party of kowtowing to a dictatorial North Korea, and claim that the legislation – a revision of the Inter Korean Relations Act – limits freedom of expression.

Balloons, bombast and blasts

The dispatch of anti-North Korea propaganda by non-governmental groups has long been a red hot political potato.

Pyongyang and Seoul reached an agreement to halt official propaganda exchanges – which used to use giant banks of military speakers to blare music and messages from frontline, fortified positions – in 2004. Despite ups and downs in inter-Korean relations, that agreement has held.

Conservative, anti-North civic groups in the South – often led by, or composed of North Korean defectors – have filled the vacuum.

North Korea wants South Korea to stop activists from flying anti-Kim Jong Un propaganda balloons over their border. Photo: AFP/Getty

Using helium balloons, they have sent anti-regime leaflet messaging, USB sticks filled with information, and US dollars over the DMZ. Other groups and individuals have used plastic bottles, floated into the Han River Estuary/Yellow Sea, to send materials north.

Pyongyang has long been infuriated by this unofficial propaganda. In June, its temper boiled over.

Following a state media message from Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in a spectacular signal of its displeasure with Seoul.

That office, just outside the North Korean border city of Kaesong, was the only such facility to exist since the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953. Its opening and operation was a key achievement of the inter-Korean summitry in 2018.

However, since the failure of a North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019, inter-Korean relations have frozen. Moon, despite his long-held desire to initiate cross-border economic ties, has followed the lead of Washington in enforcing sanctions.

That has obviated any trade or investment ties with the North – to the latter’s great displeasure.

Messaging the US

The timing of Tuesday’s legislation may be fortuitous for Moon and the DPK.

With President-Elect Joe Biden just weeks away from the White House, there are high hopes in Seoul that – with complementary Democratic Party administrations in power on both sides of the Pacific – the North Korean deadlock can be broken with fresh policy initiatives in the spring.

“I don’t see a discrepancy between Moon and Biden,” Moon Chung-in, an advisor to the South Korean president on North Korean policy, said during a symposium in Seoul last week. “They are on the same path of dealing with the North Korean problem.”

Perhaps seeing how the issue could play overseas, the DPK has taken its message beyond Korean shores. The DPK assemblyman who drafted the legislation, Song Young-gil, summed up his party’s thinking via an editorial in the English-language Korean Herald.

North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office after a state media message from Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of leader Kim Jong Un. Photo: AFP

“Freedom of expression is important, but the most important matter is to protect the [South] Korean people’s lives and properties,” Song wrote. “Under freedom of expression, the ‘balloon’ activities have been ignored, and as a result, in 2014, North Korea fired upon South Korean near-border territory.”

The 2014 anti-aircraft fire did not cause any casualties, but Song warned that similar situations could escalate into full-scale war.

Song frankly admitted that there are also uniquely North Korean sensitivities in play.

“Considering the distinctiveness of the North Korean regime, the distribution of anti-North Korea leaflets is a highly sensitive matter to the regime,” he wrote.

He also made clear that overseas criticisms are ill-informed. “I think most of the opinions of American lawmakers and civic groups are based on exaggeration or misunderstanding of the facts,’” he said.

Critics open fire

In the United States, where a number of conservative think tanks and funding organizations support defectors’ groups in South Korea, there has been criticism.  Politicians have also raised their voices.

Saying he was “troubled that legislators in an ostensibly vibrant democracy” would criminalize “conduct aimed at promoting democracy and providing spiritual and humanitarian succor to people suffering under one of the cruelest communist dictatorships in the world,” Republican Congressman Chris Smith warned in a statement on his website that he would call for action that could be embarrassing to Seoul.

“I call upon our State Department to critically re-evaluate the Republic of Korea’s commitment to democratic values in its annual human rights report, as well as in its report on international religious freedom,” Smith wrote. “It may very well be that we will see South Korea put on a watch list, which would be a very sad development indeed.”

It is unclear how the incoming Biden administration will view the issue. On the one hand, it is expected to coordinate far more closely with allies. On the other, members have talked of a “principled foreign policy.”

International NGOs have also weighed in.

“The South Korean National Assembly should reject a proposed law that would criminalize sending leaflets, information, money, and other items to North Korea,” Human Rights Watch declared on December 5.

Still, Song, in his editorial, said the legislation only applies in South Korea. Defectors who send information, money and gifts to North Koreans via smuggling networks across the China-North Korean border will not be affected.

Song also made clear that the rights of North Korean human rights groups in the South and their freedom of expression will be respected.

“More than 150 groups that represent 33,000 North Korean defectors have been registered with the Ministry of Unification,” he wrote. “Freedom of assembly, demonstration and expression is fully protected.”

Park Sang-Ha, who heads a group of North Korean defectors, launches anti-Pyongyang leaflets. Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP

Still, some in the South were uncomfortable.

“The fact is the North Koreans have always pressured South Korea to try and tame their critics in South Korean society and instead of saying, ‘We are a free democracy, we are not able to do that,’ they sort of see it in terms of pragmatic policy rather than fundamental principles,” said Mike Breen, author of The New Koreans. “This is rewarding bad North Korean behavior.”

Breen also saw an irony linking the progressive Moon administration with that of the authoritarian South Korean military governments that Moon and fellow activists had struggled against.

“I think this reflects the rather complex relationship South Korea has had with democratic values where – because of the threat of North Korea – freedoms were withheld and in some ways still are,” said Breen, who is also a columnist for the leading right-wing vernacular daily the Chosun Ilbo.

“The idea has always been, ‘We believe in freedom but we have to wait till we are not threatened until we can admit these freedoms.’”

Others were blunter.

“Particularly for North Koreans who have found freedom here in South Korea to be muzzled and prevented from informing their brethren in the North about freedom is extremely disappointing and troubling,” said Tim Peters, a US Christian activist whose organization, Helping Hands Korean, helps North Korean escapees in China.

Looking ahead, the legislation is not quite set in stone.

According to South Korean media reports, Park Sang-hak, the most high profile of the balloon activists, plans to challenge the law in the Constitutional Court.