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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on Dec. 7)

All News 06:59 December 07, 2020

Unconstitutional move
Legislation to ban sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets would violate freedom of expression

In a session of a parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and unification last week, ruling party lawmakers unilaterally passed a controversial bill aimed at banning the flying of anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the inter-Korean border into the North.

The ruling Democratic Party of Korea, which commands an overwhelming parliamentary majority, is planning to ram it through during a plenary session of the National Assembly on Wednesday.

If enacted, the proposed revision to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act would subject those sending leaflets into the North to up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 30 million won ($27,700).

The Unification Ministry says the measure would help keep residents in border regions out of harm's way and pave the way for easing tensions and building peace on the peninsula.

But the enactment of the bill would be tantamount to succumbing to pressure from North Korea. Furthermore, it could be seen as restricting the freedom of expression guaranteed by South Korea's Constitution.

For more than a decade, Seoul let North Korean defectors and their supporters in the South fly anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border, conceding that there were no legal grounds to prevent them from doing so.

A South Korean court ruling in 2015 made it clear that leaflet sending could not be prohibited in principle in respect of the freedom of expression, though it might be limited in case the lives of people could be put in danger.

But President Moon Jae-in's government, which has been preoccupied with inter-Korean reconciliation since it took office in 2017, reversed the long-held stance shortly after the North released a harshly worded statement in June, calling on the South to stop defectors and other activists from flying leaflets across the border.

The statement issued in the name of Kim Yo-jong, the increasingly powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, prompted officials at the Unification Ministry and ruling party lawmakers to raise the idea of legislation to ban the leafleting campaigns.

Pyongyang continued to up the pressure on Seoul by demolishing an inter-Korean liaison office in its border town of Kaesong and threatening to take military action.

Before the legislation was introduced, the Unification Ministry revoked the recognition of two defector groups engaged in sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets, saying the action fell outside their declared missions. It went further to inspect 25 civic groups registered with the ministry, including 13 organizations run by North Korean defectors, to see if they were operating in accordance with their stated mandates. The move seemed intended to put further pressure on defectors and other activists to stop sending leaflets into the North.

In a free democratic society, the government cannot expect or compel civic groups to follow its wishes. Bending the law to force its will on them simply goes against the principles undergirding a free and democratic society.

As urged by human rights advocates at home and abroad, the leafleting campaign should be allowed to continue to provide information to ordinary people living under the repressive regime in the North and to guarantee the freedom of expression in the democratic South.

It is certainly necessary to try to improve inter-Korean relations and promote peace on the peninsula. But that does not mean the dire human rights situation in the North can be ignored to enhance cross-border exchanges and cooperation.

The measure to subject those sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets to legal punishment would further embolden the North Korean dictatorship to take issue with criticism of it by South Korean media outlets as well as civic organizations.

It is particularly inappropriate to enact such a bill when Pyongyang continues to keep silent about Seoul's request for a joint probe into the killing of a South Korean fisheries official by North Korean troops near the western inter-Korean maritime border in September.

Blind efforts to pander to the brutal regime of the North will do little to enhance inter-Korean reconciliation but hamper or distort the process of establishing true peace on the peninsula.

The ruling party is urged to refrain from ramming through the insensible and anachronistic bill in a parliamentary plenary session this week over the objection of opposition lawmakers amid wider public sentiment against it.

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