Two Koreas issue statements on anti-North propaganda balloons

Posted on : 2020-06-05 18:01 KST Modified on : 2020-06-05 18:01 KST
S. Korea to enact legislation to crack down on leaflets as violations of Panmunjom Declaration
North Korean defectors launch propaganda balloons containing leaflets criticizing the North Korean regime in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province, on May 31. (Yonhap News)
North Korean defectors launch propaganda balloons containing leaflets criticizing the North Korean regime in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province, on May 31. (Yonhap News)

For the first time in a while, North and South Korean authorities exchanged words on June 4 in response to North Korean defector groups attaching propaganda leaflets to balloons and launching them over the DMZ to North Korea (in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province, on May 31). The North was represented by Kim Yo-jong, sister of leader Kim Jong-un and first vice director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. In a private “conversation,” Kim called the balloon messages “a despicable act” that was “an affront to the highest dignity,” and noted “I have always hated those that turn a blind eye to or incite bad behavior more than the actors themselves.” Kim reminded the South Korean delegation of the Apr. 27 Panmunjom Declaration and the Sept. 9 Military Agreement, which stipulate “ceasing all hostile acts.” She called on South Korean authorities to “take strong action to handle the situation, even if that entails making new laws.”

The South Korean government has not labelled the “Kim Yo-jong conversation” “regrettable” through any formal or informal channels. Instead, the government has demonstrated a stronger commitment to crack down on propaganda leaflets sent to North Korea through the enactment of legislation. In the short-term, the Act on the Performance of Duties by Police Officers and Act on the Management of Marine Waste and Contaminated Marine Sediments will be invoked to crack down on the balloon launches. In the long-term, the government has officially announced a plan to establish a clear legal basis for such measures through the enactment of new legislation. This is a forward-looking response that exceeded expectations. “Sending propaganda leaflets to North Korea does more harm than good,” a senior official from the Blue House stated in a press conference, even labelling such behavior “an act that threatens national security.”

There is a clear reason behind this governmental response. Even without the “Kim Yo-jong statement,” the leaflets are a violation of the agreement reached between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Article 2, paragraph 1 of the Panmunjom Declaration signed on April 27, 2018 states, “South and North Korea agreed to completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air and sea, that are the source of military tension and conflict. In this vein, the two sides agreed to transform the demilitarized zone into a peace zone in a genuine sense by ceasing as of May 1 this year all hostile acts and eliminating their means, including broadcasting through loudspeakers and distribution of leaflets, in the areas along the Military Demarcation Line.”

Article 1 of the “Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain” (the Sept. 19 Comprehensive Military Agreement) also states that “South and North Korea agreed to completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air and sea that are the source of military tension and conflict.”

Anti-North propaganda campaigns by North Korean defector organizations have caused headaches for successive South Korean governments even before the signing of the Panmunjom Declaration. One notable example was when a defector organization sent leaflets over the inter-Korean border at Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province, in October 2014. North Korea responded to the campaign by firing anti-aircraft weapons, raising tensions on the peninsula and sparking conflict between South Koreans residents near the border and the defector organization. When South Korean police were sent in to stop the leaflet campaign, the defector organization filed a lawsuit citing “damages.”

During the Park Geun-hye administration in 2016, South Korea’s Supreme Court acknowledged that anti-North leaflet campaigns did, in fact, fall under “free speech”; however, the court ultimately ruled that the South Korean government’s efforts to stop the campaigns with the police and other means were “justified,” citing the “danger” the campaigns could create on the inter-Korean border.

After the signing of the Apr. 27 Panmunjom Declaration, the Moon administration put out a statement entitled the “ROK Government's Stance regarding Civic Groups’ Launching of Propaganda Leaflets toward the North” on May 1, 2018. The statement argued that it was “important” to suspend the leaflet campaigns to ease military tensions, protect the lives of South Koreans living along the border, and prevent social conflict in line with the declaration’s aim to stop “confrontational acts” between the two Koreas. In fact, the administration has long considered measures, legislative and otherwise, to deal with the leaflet campaigns.

A Ministry of Unification (MOU) spokesperson, for example, has said that the leaders of the two Koreas had agreed to transform the DMZ into a “peace zone” in the Apr. 27 Panmunjom Declaration. While noting that the government has codified various measures aimed at making the DMZ into a peace zone into law, the spokesperson said that the administration has long “reviewed” legislative measures regarding the anti-North leaflet campaign issue.

The Moon administration has, however, made clear that these legislative and legal efforts are not simply aimed at “cracking down” on the leaflet campaigns for no reason. The administration is saying that it will add a clause in a new law currently under review to “crack down” on the leaflet campaigns as part of efforts to turn the DMZ into a peace zone. This narrative shows that the administration is considering “political realities” given the controversy surrounding “freedom of expression” and a potential backlash from the country’s political conservatives.

Meanwhile, a former high-level government official told Hankyoreh that while it is good for the South Korean government to announce they have a plan to “control” anti-North leaflet campaigns through legislative means, he argued that the government desperately needs to take a bolder approach to break the impasse between the two Koreas. Namely, he argued that South Korea should focus on public health-related inter-Korean cooperation and cited North Korea’s recent move to build the Pyongyang General Hospital.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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