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Ministry seeks police probe of leafleting NGOs, Cheong Wa Dae warns of ‘stern’ measures

Conservative bloc riles at move, accuses government of violating constitutional rights

A file photo of NGOs sending balloons carrying leaflets to North Korea from Paju, Gyeonggi Province in 2016. Yonhap
A file photo of NGOs sending balloons carrying leaflets to North Korea from Paju, Gyeonggi Province in 2016. Yonhap

The Ministry of Unification on Thursday requested the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency to investigate two NGOs sending propaganda to North Korea on suspicion of violating inter-Korean cooperation, environmental and aviation laws.

The NGOs -- Fighters for a Free North Korea, led by defector Park Sang-hak; and Keumsaem, headed by Park’s younger brother Park Jung-oh -- are accused of violating the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act, Aviation Safety Act and Public Waters Management and Reclamation Act.

The ministry also revealed that it has informed the NGOs of hearings for revoking their licenses, and that related procedures will be carried out within the month.

The move comes in the wake of Pyongyang severing communications with Seoul and warning of hostilities citing the leaflets as its reason for doing so.

The two NGOs have in the past sent rice, anti-North Korea leaflets and USB device to North Korea by floating plastic bottles in the sea, some of which have accumulated on South Korean shores. According to related regulations, act of dumping waste in the seas is punishable by up to three-year imprisonment or a fine of less than 30 million won ($25,000).

Under the Aviation Safety Act drones weighing more than 12 kilograms need to be reported to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport. The act also bans use of light aerial vehicles in no-flight zones, which includes military controlled areas near the inter-Korean border.

“It is deeply regrettable that some civilian organizations are continuing to distribute leaflets and materials despite the government’s continuous crackdown and inter-Korean agreements,” Kim You-geun, deputy director of the National Security Office said.

He said that the two sides have agreed to stop sending leaflets in three inter-Korean agreements in addition to the 2018 Panmunjeom Declaration, adding that both sides have stopped sending propaganda across the border in 2018.

“Such actions not only violate domestic laws, but does do not meet inter-Korean agreements and do not aid our efforts to achieve peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.”

Going on to say that the government will deal sternly with such actions, he called on civilian organizations to abide by concerned regulations, and that the government will uphold all inter-Korean agreements to maintain peace and prevent military clashes.

The move has boiled over to the political arena, adding to the already strained relations between the ruling and main opposition parties.

The plan was met by heavy criticism from the conservative bloc that accuses the government of attempting to appease the North at the cost of constitutional rights of South Koreans.

“A few months ago the Unification Ministry said that there is no legal basis for cracking down (on sending leaflets) but now it is saying it will seek penalties through the inter-Korean exchange act after ‘Kim Yo-jong’s command,’” United Future Party floor leader Rep. Joo Ho-young said. Joo said that the leaflets are “very helpful” for improving human rights conditions in North Korea, and that they are within the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution.

The ruling Democratic Party, for its part, is defending the ministry’s decision, and seeking legal means to stop leaflets being sent.

On Thursday, ruling party’s Rep. Sul Hoon and 25 other lawmakers of the party proposed a revision to the Special Act on Support for Border Area that would ban leafleting for environmental reasons and for the safety of residents of areas near the border.

Residents of regions near the border oppose leaflets being sent to North Korea from their areas, over concerns that North Korea might retaliate with military action.

The general public, however, is divided over prohibiting leafleting. According to a survey conducted by the pollster Realmeter, the public is divided 51 percent to 41 percent, respectively, in supporting and opposing such regulations.

By Choi He-suk (