A South Korean law that threatens human rights activists with fines of nearly $27,000 or up to three years in prison has prompted international concern about the status of free speech in South Korea and the future of human rights advocacy. Passed in December by South Korea’s parliament, the law bans civilians from floating balloons with informational leaflets and sending bottles with rice and USBs over water.
Last month, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the US House of Representatives held a hearing on freedom of expression on the Korean Peninsula. The hearing revealed several causes for concern, but one thing is clear: the South Korean government should expend more effort to promote access to information in North Korea than it does to stifle freedom of speech and expression in the South.
The anti-leaflet law is just the latest and most aggressive of recent efforts by President Moon Jae-in’s government to quiet activists. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification announced last July that it would conduct a special review on activist organizations that promote human rights in North Korea and launch balloons. South Korean authorities raided NGO offices, surveilled organizations, and briefly detained activists.
South Korea ramped up measures against activists in the wake of comments from Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, who warned that “the South Korean authorities will be forced to pay a dear price” if they continued to allow activists to send leaflets over the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
Balloon launches are mainly led by North Korean defectors who want to share information and media with those who remain in the isolated North. Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) calls the anti-leaflet law the “anti-Bible and BTS Balloon Bill,” since balloons often carry USB drives loaded with K-pop music and Korean dramas or even Bibles.
Critics can question the efficacy of balloon launches, and such debates are valid. Regardless of how the information gets into North Korea, testimonies of North Korean defectors demonstrate that many choose to defect after getting a glimpse of the reality of life in the outside world and the flourishing a free society makes possible.
In North Korea, the only news, music, and movies allowed are propaganda approved by the government. Possessing religious items like Bibles can be life-threatening. According to some defectors, it is easier to get away with murder than to escape punishment after being caught with a Bible.
For defector activists like Park Sang-hak, attaching leaflets to balloons is an important way to reach North Koreans with the truth. For his work, the North Korean regime has dispatched assassins to kill him twice, only to be thwarted by South Korean intelligence services. The fact that North Korean authorities go to such lengths to end Park’s activism shows how much of an impact those activities can make.
To deprive people of the ability to understand what is happening in the outside world and prohibit religious literature are grave affronts on human dignity.
Thae Yong-ho, the second-highest-ranking North Korean official to defect, has said, “Until now, the North Korean system has prevailed through an effective and credible reign of terror and by almost perfectly preventing the free-flow of outside information.” The regime is afraid of its people because if North Koreans knew the truth about the success of the free world and failure of its communist state, the regime would fall.
Information is a pressure point for the North Korean regime. Suzanne Scholte, chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, noted at last month’s hearing that the Moon government “seems more concerned with helping the Kim regime, rather than the people who live under its tyranny.”
Improving access to information for North Koreans is an important step to advancing human rights and democracy. Rather than squelch free speech and expression, South Korea should cooperate with allies, including the United States, to take concrete, tangible steps to expand access to information in the North.
As Inho Lee, former South Korean ambassador to Russia, testified at last week’s hearing, “Threats to freedom and democracy are easy to perceive when they come from persons donning military uniforms as in Myanmar, but much more difficult to detect when instigated by persons wearing the mantle of democracy fighters.”
Stifling the rights of South Koreans will not improve human rights on the Korean Peninsula. It will only aid the North Korean regime, which will perpetuate its crimes against humanity with less resistance from defector activists.
A proper response to the oppressive North Korean regime must never entail adopting their oppressive policies. Instead, the South Korean government should renew its commitment to advancing civil and political rights at home and across the 38th parallel.