Activists in Seoul vowed on Tuesday to keep sending anti-North Korean leaflets by balloon into the North’s territory, shrugging off a South Korean investigation into a balloon launch last week in defiance of a law banning the practice, which Pyongyang called an act of “dirty human scum.”
South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said Tuesday that authorities are investigating the launch of balloons across the closed inter-Korean border by a group called Fighters for a Free North Korea, the first such launch since the law came into effect in December.
In a move widely criticized by human rights groups and free speech advocates as a concession to placate North Korea, Seoul in December 2020 passed the law banning the airborne leaflets with messages critical of the North Korean government and its leaders, which civic groups have been doing for decades.
“The South Korean police have already formed an investigation team and are conducting investigations,” a spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said at a press conference.
At a rally hosted by human rights groups in front of the National Assembly in Seoul on Tuesday, Choi Jung-hoon of a civic group called the North Korean People’s Liberation Front told RFA’s Korean Service that the group being investigated has many allies.
“If Park Sang-hak, the chairman of the Fighters for a Free North Korea is arrested, another Park Sang-hak will arise, and the leaflets that provide valuable knowledge to the North Korean people will continue,” he said.
“I promise that many South Koreans, including refugees from North Korea, will do what we can to save him,” said Choi.
Park, who escaped from North Korea in the 1990s, told RFA Monday that his group would continue to send leaflets in defiance of the law, which has been criticized by international human rights groups as unbecoming of a democracy.
“As long as there are North Korean refugees, we will continue to send them no matter what kind of oppression and tyranny comes our way,” said Park.
“We can send more leaflets tomorrow. We can keep sending them,” he said, noting that his group had no conflict with police or residents during the most recent launch.
The South Korean police chief on Sunday ordered a probe into Park and his group, only hours after Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, threatened “corresponding action” for the “intolerable provocation” in a statement published in the state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA).
“We have already seriously warned the South Korean authorities of consequences their wrong act of giving silent approval to the human wastes’ wild moves will bring to the north-south relations. However, the South Korean authorities again did not stop the reckless acts of the ‘defectors from the North,’ winking at them,” Kim said.
Last summer North Korea blew up a South Korea-built joint liaison office in its territory in anger at the leaflet launches. Kim threatened to retaliate for last week’s leaflets as well.
“We regard the maneuvers committed by the human wastes in the south as a serious provocation against our state and will look into corresponding action. Whatever decision we make and whatever actions we take, the responsibility for the consequences thereof will entirely rest with the South Korean authorities who stopped short of holding proper control of the dirty human scum,” she said.
While the groups that send the leaflets into North Korea claim that they are providing the North Korean people with a look at the outside world, the effectiveness of such leaflet campaigns is limited, and more information penetrates the North through smuggled USB drives and other devices, experts have said.
Because the launchers cannot control where the balloons fly or where the leaflets drop, often the activity does nothing more than land in rural areas that the North Korean military can quickly clean up before anyone finds it.
The activists and their supporters, however, say that launching leaflets should be a protected activity under the South Korean constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression.
Supporters of the anti-leaflet law have argued that the leaflets bother local South Korean residents and pose a security risk to police, but Park said that when his group launched the balloons, neither residents nor the police took issue with it.
No military preparations seen
Kim Jun-rak, the spokesperson of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a press conference Monday that the military did not detect any preparations for retaliatory actions from North Korea.
“There is no unusual trend so far. The South Korean military is closely watching related trends and maintaining a firm preparedness,” said Kim Jun-rak.
KCNA also slammed the Biden administration for its public criticism of the North.
Kwon Jong Gun, the director general of North Korea’s foreign ministry, said President Joe Biden made a “big blunder” in his April 28 address to Congress.
“On Iran and North Korea — nuclear programs that present serious threats to American security and the security of the world — we’re going to be working closely with our allies to address the threats posed by both of these countries through diplomacy, as well as stern deterrence,” Biden said in the only mention North Korea in the hour-long speech.
Kwon called Biden’s words a “slip of the tongue,” and said the statement “clearly reflects his intent to keep enforcing the hostile policy toward the DPRK as it had been done by the U.S. for over half a century.”
He defended North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs as a deterrent against U.S. aggression, saying it was illogical to classify them as a threat.
“The U.S. will face worse and worse crisis beyond control in the near future if it is set to approach the DPRK-U.S. ties, still holding on the outdated policy from Cold War-minded perspective and viewpoint. It is certain that the U.S. chief executive made a big blunder in the light of the present-day viewpoint,” Kwon said, claiming that the U.S. was threatening North Korea, not the other way around.
North Korea also took umbrage at a U.S. State Department statement supporting “the millions of North Koreans who continue to have their dignity and human rights violated by one of the most repressive and totalitarian states in the world,”
“We are appalled by the increasingly draconian measures the regime has taken, including shoot-to-kill orders at the North Korea-China border, to tighten control of its people under the guise of fighting COVID-19. The civilized world has no place for such brutality, and the international community must continue to speak out,” the department said on April 28.
In response, a North Korean foreign ministry spokesperson called the remarks a smear of North Korea’s anti-epidemic measures that confirms Washington’s hostile policy, and a violation of the country’s sovereignty.
The North Korean statement also brought up the more than half a million reported COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., and more than 40,000 deaths as a result of gun-related crimes, as evidence that the U.S. was not a part of the so-called “civilized world.”
North Korea continues to claim that it is completely virus free, but Pyongyang has taken extensive measures to prevent the spread of the virus within the country, including locking down whole cities, restricting travel between provinces, and advising citizens in public lectures last year that the virus had spread to geographically distant parts of the country, including the capital Pyongyang.
Reported by Yong Jae Mok and Seung Wook Han for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.