S. Korea responds to UN criticism of anti-propaganda law restricting freedom of expression

Posted on : 2020-12-18 19:02 KST Modified on : 2020-12-18 19:02 KST
Foreign minister says law is “limited in scope” during CNN interview
North Korea demolishes the Inter-Korean Liaison Office in Kaesong on June 16. (Yonhap News)
North Korea demolishes the Inter-Korean Liaison Office in Kaesong on June 16. (Yonhap News)

The South Korean government has briskly responded to criticism of a legal amendment that criminalizes the act of launching propaganda leaflets into North Korea. Critics say that the new law restricts freedom of expression and that it ought to be reconsidered.

Radio Free Asia reported on Dec. 16 that Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN’s special rapporteur for North Korean human rights issues, had recommended that the relevant democratic institutions use appropriate procedures to reconsider the amendment of the anti-propaganda law before it takes effect.

Quintana acknowledged that “the amendment was provided by law [. . .] and subject to a democratic debate at the National Assembly” but criticized the amendment for harshly restricting the activities of civic groups and many defectors who seek to engage with North Koreans. “This indeterminate and blanket formula may challenge the compliance of the amendment with international human rights standards,” the special rapporteur asserted.

On Dec. 14, the National Assembly mandated a penalty of no more than 30 million won (US$27,327) in fines or three years in prison for those who cause serious harm to the lives or safety of the public by using loudspeakers to broadcast messages into North Korea from the Civilian Control Line on the southern side of the Military Demarcation Line, distributing visual media into North Korea, or sending leaflets or similar items to random people in the North.

The act defines “leaflets or similar items” as including flyers; items such as advertisements, printed materials, and backup memory devices; and money or other assets.

“We express our regret for the mention of a ‘need for an appropriate review of democratic institutions’ [. . .] regarding the democratic discussions and deliberations held in accordance with the procedures set by the Constitution and laws of the National Assembly,” an official from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) said on Dec. 17.

While this response came in a statement by an unidentified official, it’s extremely rare for the MOU to directly object to the opinion of the UN’s special rapporteur on North Korean human rights issues.

In drafting the revised legislation, the MOU official explained, the National Assembly had restricted methods of expression as little as possible, taking into account judicial precedent so as to protect freedom of expression while also protecting the lives and safety of Koreans living near the border. The official asserted that Quintana needed to take a balanced look at the fact that the new law minimally restricted the methods of expression of a small number of people so as to protect the lives and safety of a large number of Koreans living in the border region.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha added her voice to the debate. In an interview with CNN on Dec. 16, Kang acknowledged criticism that the anti-leafleting law infringed on freedom of expression. “Freedom of expression, I think, is absolutely vital to human rights. But it’s not absolute,” Kang said.

Kang added that the law “is limited in scope” and only applies “when these acts [launching propaganda flyers] pose a harm [. . .] to the life and the security of our people.” She also observed that the leaflet-carrying balloons are launched from an inhabited area marked by high military tensions.

Furthermore, Kang stressed that the amendment was legitimate and unavoidable, noting several provocations that North Korea has made after taking issue with the leaflet launches. In October 2014, tensions flared when North Korea fired anti-aircraft guns, causing South Korean forces to return fire. This past June, North Korea blew up the Inter-Korean Liaison Office in Kaesong.

By Kim Ji-eun, staff reporter, and Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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