near the waters where the Cheonan warship sank
The South Korean government is not using the existing laws it has at its disposal to prevent private groups from launching balloons carrying propaganda leaflets to North Korea.
This could be evidence that Seoul is sitting on its hands while residents near the border continue to fret over the deepening conflict over the leaflets, which has sparked at least one gun battle in recent weeks.
Unified Progressive Party lawmaker Kim Jae-yeon said on Oct. 12 that the Imjingak resort in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, which some groups have announced as the site of an upcoming balloon launch on Oct. 25, is classified as a no-fly zone (P-513), with the Aviation Act prohibiting all flights for military reasons. Anyone wishing to use a large balloon to send leaflets to North Korea would need permission from the Minister of National Defense or Commander of the ROK-US Combined Forces Command, with violators subject to up to six years in prison or a fine of up to 5 million won (US$4,740).
“On Oct. 20, a civic group that was attempting to launch a balloon carrying leaflets on the Sewol ferry disaster from Gwanghwamun in downtown Seoul was stopped by police citing a no-fly zone (P-73),” Kim noted.
“Police should apply the same standard to stop the leaflet launch event scheduled to take place in another no-fly zone (P-518) near the armistice line,” she added.
Indeed, Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency commissioner Gu Eun-su said at a National Assembly audit on Oct. 20 that “if a launch is suspected, and it is in violation of Aviation Act, it should be stopped.”
The Aviation Act isn‘t the only legal grounds for punishing the launches. Perhaps the strongest case lies with Article 5 of the Act on the Performance of Duties by Police Officers, which states that police can take measures that they deem necessary when damage to human lives or bodies or property damage is predicted. In Oct. 2012, the administration of then-President Lee Myung-bak used this law as a basis for preventing a leaflet launch, citing provocative moves by North Korea and the possibility of a clash with local residents.
Another law that could be invoked against the launches is the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act. This law requires the Unification Minister’s approval for any items transported into North Korea. The groups behind the launches have not received approval for using the balloons to take items such as dollar bills and radios into North Korea.
But a Unification Ministry official said on condition of anonymity that there “must be a clear recipient for something to qualify as ‘transporting items into North Korea’ according to the Exchange and Cooperation Act.”
“It’s not really a strong basis for punishment,” the official added.
Seoul punished the actual making of large-scale balloons once in 2008, citing the High-Pressure Gas Safety Control Act. But it hasn’t proven effective at blocking launches since then, as the groups responsible have sidestepped punishment by earning gas safety certification and using smaller balloons.
Some are saying a more fundamental solution would be for the National Assembly to enact new legislation specifically barring leaflet distribution. New Politics Alliance for Democracy lawmaker Kim Seung-nam said he and others were working on an amendment to the Exchange and Cooperation Act that would require prior Unification Ministry notice for leaflet launches, with the minister‘s approval required even for cases using large advertising balloons.
The ministry official dismissed the notion that it had any plans for establishing a legal basis for blocking the launches.
“We have no plans for that,” the official said.
Attorney Kim Kyung-jin said Seoul could apply legal prohibitions on the leaflet distributions “if the political will was there.”
“Instead of trying to exploit the leaflet issue for political ends, they need to take clear steps to punish it,” Kim said, citing resident concerns about practical damages.
By Choi Hyun-june, staff reporter
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