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(2nd LD) Leaflet spread to test N. Korea's will for dialogue

All Headlines 17:30 January 06, 2015

(ATTN: UPDATES with court ruling in last 4 paras)
By Lee Chi-dong and Park So-jung

SEOUL, Jan. 6 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is keeping close tabs on North Korea's response to another round of massive spreading of anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border, a unification ministry official said Tuesday.

An activist group of North Korean defectors flew balloons carrying some 600,000 fliers from Yeoncheon, a county near the communist nation, on Monday evening, according to local police.

The North has been extremely sensitive to such leaflet scattering. It reneged on a deal to hold high-level talks with the South between late October and early November, citing the practice by conservative groups here.

Pyongyang has urged Seoul to ban the leaflet drive, which officials here associate with the freedom of speech.

"(The group) seems to have scattered leaflets without prior notice (to the relevant authorities)," the official told reporters on background. "We are closely watching how North Korea will respond."

The government is apparently concerned about whether it will negatively affect burgeoning signs of a thaw in inter-Korean relations.

In late December, South Korea proposed ministerial talks with the North this month. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in his New Year's address, said his regime would make every effort to improve the ties through various types of dialogue, including summit talks.

Pyongyang has not provided a formal reply yet to Seoul's dialogue offer but many observers here expect a positive answer.

The ministry official said the latest spread of leaflets may serve as a litmus test for the North's resolve to engage in dialogue with the South.

"If the dialogue mood is hampered by this incident, it would mean dialogue, even if resumed, can be suspended any time," he said.

It's a matter for the two sides to ride out in order to develop their ties, he added, reiterating that the government has no legal basis to prohibit the leaflet campaign.

Hours later, however, the district court in Uijeongbu, just north of Seoul, issued an unusual ruling appearing to contradict that longstanding view.

In June, 58-year-old Lee Min-bok, a North Korean defector who works as a Christian missionary, filed a damage suit against the government, claiming he suffered psychological damage as a result of the government's attempts to hold him back from the campaign.

The court dismissed the request, saying it is legal for the government to restrain the scattering of leaflets across the border if the activity puts the lives of the South Korean people at risk.

It especially cited North Korea's repeated threats of retaliation and the brief exchange of machine gun fire that took place across the border in October after the North tried to shoot down dozens of balloons carrying the leaflets.


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