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(LEAD) Gov't holds hearing on defector groups over anti-N.K. leafleting

All News 11:03 June 29, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES headline, first 2 paras; ADDS details in paras 4-6)
By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, June 29 (Yonhap) -- The unification ministry held a hearing Monday to give two North Korean defector groups a final chance to explain themselves before going ahead with a decision to revoke their operation permits for sending propaganda leaflets into the North.

The hearing came weeks after the ministry decided to file a criminal complaint with police against Fighters for a Free North Korea and Kuensaem and revoke their business permits for their sending of leaflets into the North.

"The hearing to be held on Monday is intended to hear their explanations," a ministry official said. "It is a procedure that should be carried out before taking any measure of revoking permits granted to such civic groups."

If their permits are revoked, donors for the activist groups will not be eligible for various tax benefits. Observers see the hearing as a perfunctory step before revoking their operations permits.

A legal representative for Kuensaem told reporters before going into the hearing that the ministry's decision to revoke permits is an "infringement on the right to freedom of expression and assembly guaranteed under the Constitution."

Fighters for a Free North Korea did not send an official or legal representative to the hearing, saying that it had not received the ministry's notice that the hearing would be held.

The campaign to scatter leaflets has recently emerged as a major source of cross-border tensions since Pyongyang called it a violation of an inter-Korean summit agreement in 2018 and threatened to take a series of retaliatory steps against South Korea unless it fails to stop such activity.

North Korea later called South Korea an "enemy" and blew up an inter-Korean liaison office in its border town of Kaesong in anger over the leafleting issue.

North Korean defectors and anti-Pyongyang activists have for years sent a large number of leaflets via giant balloons, criticizing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his ruling family.

The government has advised against sending such leaflets, citing concerns about the safety of residents in the border regions, but they have often ignored the appeal, citing their right to freedom of expression.

Fighters for a Free North Korea and Kuensaem consisting of defectors are among the most active groups in sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets.

According to the ministry, Kuensaem has tried to send plastic bottles carrying rice, USBs, Bibles and other materials to North Korea eight times this year. Fighters for a Free North Korea claimed last week to send 500,000 leaflets, SD cards and $1 bills into the North via balloons, but they appear to have failed to cross the border.

On Friday, police raided the offices of the two groups and secured documents and devices necessary for its ongoing investigation into their sending of leaflets.

Members of Fighters for a Free North Korea, an organization of defectors from North Korea, send balloons carrying anti-North leaflets across the border from the South Korean border city of Paju, in this file photo dated April 2, 2016. On June 4, 2020, South Korea called for a halt to a civic campaign to send anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets into North Korea, hours after the North threatened to scrap a military tension reduction agreement and exchange projects unless Seoul stops the campaign. (Yonhap)

kokobj@yna.co.kr
(END)

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