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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Dec. 21)

All News 07:08 December 21, 2020

International criticism
Leafleting ban could stifle freedom of expression

South Korea is facing international criticism for the passing of a bill prohibiting the sending of anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the inter-Korean border into North Korea. This means that Seoul's legislation of a leafleting ban has emerged as a global issue, something the Moon Jae-in administration cannot afford to dismiss as "interference in internal affairs."

On Dec. 14, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) railroaded the revision to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act through the National Assembly to penalize leaflet senders with a maximum prison term of three years or a fine of up to 30 million won ($27,400). The party has come under fire for ignoring conservative opposition parties' objections to the bill which could undermine freedom of expression and deprive North Koreans of access to information from outside.

However, the liberal DPK defended the revision, saying it was necessary to ensure the security of residents in border areas and prevent tensions between the two Koreas from rising due to the propaganda leaflets. The Moon administration has pushed for the ban since Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korea leader Kim Jong-un, called for Seoul in June to take measures against people sending the anti-Pyongyang leaflets.

That's why the main opposition People Power Party has lambasted the governing bloc for giving in to pressure from the North, calling the proposed ban the "Kim Yo-jong" bill. An activist group of North Korean defectors, who have been spearheading the leaflet campaign, has threatened to file a complaint against the ban with the Constitutional Court. Regrettably, the leaflet issue is deepening the ideological divide between progressives and conservatives.

The problem does not stop there. The United Nations and the United States are jumping on the bandwagon to criticize Seoul's move against leaflet sending. Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the North, urged South Korea to reconsider the ban before it takes effect. He cited the freedom of expression of activist groups as reasons for reconsideration.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun reportedly conveyed the U.S. government's concern during his trip to Seoul from Dec. 8 to 11 before the proposed leaflet ban obtained approval from the Assembly. The Trump administration has yet to reveal its position on the issue. However, U.S. lawmakers have expressed concerns that the ban might stifle freedom of expression and could make it more difficult for North Koreans to have access to outside information.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said he would have the U.S. government re-evaluate South Korea in its upcoming reports on human rights and religious freedom. Smith, co-chair of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, argued that the legislation of the leaflet prohibition could violate the South Korea's Constitution and its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). According to media reports, the commission is likely to hold a hearing on the ban next month when the U.S. Congress begins a new session.

Now, the Moon Jae-in government should make efforts to prevent the leaflet issue from turning into a diplomatic row with the incoming Joe Biden administration which will focus its foreign policy on promoting human rights and democratic values. Moon needs to pay more heed to international criticism. He should not put human rights issues on the backburner to press ahead with reconciliation with the oppressive Kim Jong-un regime.
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