[Column] Stop using propaganda leaflets as political tool, listen to voices of ordinary N. Korean defectors

Posted on : 2021-05-07 17:14 KST Modified on : 2021-05-07 17:14 KST
We should focus on opening the window of opportunity for more diverse groups of North Korean defectors
Jeon Su-mi
Jeon Su-mi

By Jeon Su-mi, attorney at Solidarity for Reconciliation and Peace

The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the US House of Representatives held a video hearing on April 15 about South Korea’s law banning the sending of propaganda leaflets into North Korea. This law has also been the object of controversy within the South based on concerns over the violation of freedom of speech, the right to know of North Korean residents, and the right to live of residents in the cross-border areas.

Propaganda leaflets are mostly filled with provocative expressions that reproach the North Korean head of state, such as “the tragic last of the dictators,” “Kim Jong-un who is good at taking money and running,” “the devil who murdered his brother,” and “Kim Jong-un butchering people,” as well as slandering the former and incumbent South Korean presidents. I would like to ask if anybody truly thinks such provocative slander will help improve the human rights of North Korean residents.

The South Korean government had discussed the enactment of the anti-leaflet law and regulated the sending of leaflets into the North since 2008 in response to the continued complaints of residents in cross-border areas. Back then, those who floated the leaflets did not react outwardly against the government. After the change of administration, they suddenly began to create the image through media manipulation that the distribution of leaflets had come to be blocked by the current administration and have continued to publicize to the international community that the South Korean government is infringing on the human rights of North Korean defectors.

Should we view them as activists dedicated to the human rights of North Koreans? Or are they mere politicians who use the North Korean human rights issue and propaganda leaflets as a means to an end?

Most North Korean defectors I have met displayed a negative response to such leaflets, saying that they felt insulted by the slander of their head of state commonly found on these propaganda leaflets and that the provocation to subvert their regime was simply silly. Some of them testified that such leaflets are useless as it is impossible to keep them long enough or take the food sent along with them due to the North Korean authorities’ airtight watch and added that the sending of propaganda leaflets only aggravates the image of all North Korean defectors and endangers their family members left in the North. There was a report from a North Korean defector that some organizations are using the floating of propaganda leaflets as a business item under the pretext of improving human rights. Reportedly, when asked why they kept sending these leaflets to no avail, they responded that it was for the money.

When propaganda leaflets were again distributed recently, Kim Yo-jong, a member of the Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea, released a reproaching statement on Sunday. These days, most North Koreans are highly sensitive to the influx of outside goods due to the COVID-19 pandemic and their weak immunity. If propaganda leaflets are floated by those confirmed or suspected to be infected with the virus, this can be a form of biochemical weaponry that threatens North Koreans’ lives and has a detrimental impact on the regime itself. Kim Yo-jong appears to be holding the South Korean government responsible for the incident. The last time this happened, the North blew up the Inter-Korean Liaison Office. Who knows what will come next?

Among 34,000 North Korean defectors in the South, less than 1% are exposed in the media. However, the South Korean public and international community appear to easily consider the opinions and actions of this small minority to represent the entire North Korean defector community. Within the community, viewpoints differ by generation, region and gender. Those who float propaganda leaflets and criticize the current administration represent only a small faction in this community. Many defectors, who struggle to stay afloat in the South, are highly disturbed by such an extreme stance. Out of fear that this extremist faction has a far-reaching influence over the community and any expression of opposition to it is likely to place them under attack, they prefer to remain silent and invisible.

We should stop making the mistake of this hasty generalization and focus on opening the window of opportunity for more diverse groups of North Korean defectors to surface and make their voices heard. I look forward to the advancement of the era where “non-political” North Korean defectors, not those who abuse the issues of the human rights of North Koreans and propaganda leaflets to secure power, play the leading role in the resolution of the inter-korean problems.

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

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