SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean police on Monday summoned an activist who said he flew hundreds of thousands of anti-North Korean propaganda leaflets toward the North by balloon in defiance of a new law that criminalizes such activities.
The questioning of Park Sang-hak, a well-known North Korean defector, came hours after President Moon Jae-in in a televised speech issued apparent criticism of Park without naming him, saying it’s “never desirable” to dampen relations with North Korea by violating inter-Korean agreements and South Korean laws.
South Korea has faced criticism over the anti-leafleting law, which some human rights advocates see as an attack on democratic freedoms and efforts to break the North’s information blockage. Moon stressed, however, that his government has “no choice but to strictly enforce laws.”
Police searched Park’s office last week after he announced that his group had launched balloons carrying 500,000 leaflets, 5,000 one-dollar bills and 500 booklets about South Korea’s economic riches across the border during April 25-29.
Park’s action would be the first known violation of the law, which took effect in March and punishes anti-North Korean leafletting with up to three years in prison or a fine of 30 million won ($27,000).
Officials at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency refused to confirm any details from the questioning or whether they were pushing for Park’s arrest.
Park said his actions were aimed at informing North Koreans of the harsh realities of their country’s authoritarian regime and claimed other activists would continue to launch leaflets across the border even if he goes to jail.
“What do they even think (anti-North Korean) leaflets are? Do they have poisonous pills inside? Do they have bombs inside?” a visibly frustrated Park told reporters after arriving at the police agency.
He said in North Korea “we were taught that South Korea was a colony of U.S. imperialists and hell on Earth. What we are doing is writing letters (to the North) while living here, telling the truth through the leaflets.”
North Korea is extremely sensitive to outside criticism about its leadership, and Park’s announcement drew vitriol from Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who handles inter-Korean affairs. She said in a statement released through state media that the leafletting was an “intolerable provocation” and that her government would look into corresponding measures.
In 2014, North Korean soldiers at the border fired toward balloons flying toward their territory, prompting South Korean troops to return fire.
Seoul’s anti-leafletting law was fiercely debated during a video conference hearing called by U.S. lawmakers last month, where U.S. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey accused Seoul of retreating 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.”
South Korean lawyer Jeon Sumi, who was among the panelists defending the law, criticized the leaflets’ “hyper aggressive” language toward North Korea’s leadership and insisted that flying them unnecessarily provokes the North and endangers the safety of South Koreans living in border areas.