SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A South Korean activist said Friday he launched 500,000 propaganda leaflets by balloon into North Korea this week in defiance of a contentious new law that criminalizes such actions.
If confirmed, Park Sang-hak’s action would be the first known violation of the law that punishes anti-Pyongyang leafleting with up to three years in prison or a fine of 30 million won ($27,040). The law that took effect last month has invited criticism South Korea is sacrificing freedom of expression to improve ties with rival North Korea, which has repeatedly protested the leafleting.
Front-line police stations in Gyeonggi and Gangwon provinces said they couldn’t immediately confirm if Park sent balloons from their areas, which Park said he used in two launches this week. Cha Duck Chul, a deputy spokesman at Seoul’s Unification Ministry, said the government would handle the case in line with the objective of the law, though police and military authorities were still working to confirm Park’s statement.
Park said his organization floated 10 huge balloons carrying the leaflets, 500 booklets critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s government, and 5,000 one-dollar bills from sites near the border with North Korea. He would not disclose the exact locations in the two border provinces, citing worries police would stop future attempts.
“Though (authorities) can handcuff and put me to a prison cell, they cannot stop (my leafleting) with whatever threats or violence as long as the North Korean people waits for the letters of freedom, truth and hopes,” said Park, a North Korean defector known for years of leafleting campaigns.
Park called the anti-leafleting legislation “the worst law” that “sides with cruel human rights abuser Kim Jong Un and covers the eyes and ears of the North Korean people that have become the modern-day slaves of the Kim dynasty.”
Video released by Park showed him releasing a balloon with leaflets toward a dark sky. He is seen standing with a sign that partly reads, “The world condemns Kim Jong Un who is crazy for nuclear and rocket provocations.”
The anti-leafleting legislation was passed in December in Parliament, where lawmakers supporting President Moon Jae-in’s engagement policy on North Korea hold a three-fifths supermajority. It went into effect in late March.
It’s the first South Korean law that formally bans civilians from floating anti-North Korea leaflets across the border. South Korea has previously banned such activities only during sensitive times.
The law was fiercely debated during a video conference hearing called by U.S. lawmakers this month, where critics denounced it as an attack on democratic freedoms and efforts to break North Korea’s information blockade. Proponents of the law criticized what they called extremely aggressive language in leaflets, arguing flying such materials would unnecessarily provoke North Korea and endanger the safety of residents in South Korea near the border.
“What I really think is extremely alarming is a retreat by the South Korean government from its longstanding commitment to human rights vis-à-vis North Korea and China, ostensibly in the cause of fostering better relations or achieving nuclear nonproliferation,” Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey said during the hearing.
In 2014, North Korea fired at propaganda balloons flying toward its territory and South Korea returned fire. There were no casualties.
During their summit in 2018, Moon and Kim agreed to halt Cold War-style psychological warfare and reduce animosities.
Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, last year furiously demanded South Korea ban the leafleting and called North Korean defectors involved in it “human scum” and “mongrel dogs.”
Despite the law, ties between the Koreas remain strained amid a standstill in broader nuclear diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington. North Korea has made a series of derisive statements against Seoul, including Kim Yo Jong calling Moon “a parrot raised by America” after he criticized the North’s recent missile launches.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.