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[Editorial] Step backward

Revoking operation permits of defector groups goes against democratic values

South Korea’s Unification Ministry revoked the operation permits of two defector groups Friday for sending anti-North Korea leaflets across the border.

The move came 43 days after the ministry undertook the revocation process on June 11 as part of its response to Pyongyang’s anger over Seoul’s failure to stop North Korean defectors here from flying propaganda leaflets into the communist state.

The ministry said in a statement that the act of sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets gravely hindered the government’s efforts toward unification, jeopardized the lives and safety of residents in border areas and created a tense situation on the Korean Peninsula. It also noted such act goes beyond the groups’ declared purposes of establishment.

Despite the long explanation, the measure was seen by many as yet another move by the Moon Jae-in administration to pander to demands from the North.

For more than a decade, Seoul had let North Korean defectors and their supporters send anti-Pyongyang leaflets, conceding there were no legal grounds for banning the act.

But the Moon government, which has been preoccupied with its agenda of inter-Korean reconciliation, reversed the long-held stance shortly after the North issued a harshly worded statement on June 4, calling on the South to stop defectors from sending over anti-Pyongyang leaflets.

Just hours after the statement was issued in the name of Kim Yo-jong, the increasingly powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the Unification Ministry said it would push for a legal revision to ban the leafleting campaign.

The North continued to up the pressure by demolishing an inter-Korean liaison office on its side of the border and threatening military measures.

Revoking the defector groups’ permission to operate does not render them illegal, but it will make it harder for them to raise money and deny them access to benefits given to registered organizations.

The measure ignored appeals from human rights groups at home and abroad that the leafleting campaign be allowed to continue to provide information to people under the oppressive rule in the North and guarantee freedom of expression in the democratic South.

In a statement last month, Human Rights Watch, a major rights organization headquartered in New York, urged President Moon to “publicly demand that North Korea respect freedom of expression and stop censoring what North Koreans can see” instead of proposing a blanket ban on sending fliers to the North.

It is unimaginable for Moon to risk arousing the ire of the Kim regime by making such demands.

But his government should at least refrain from taking steps that undermine South Korea’s reputation as a free democratic society just to placate Pyongyang’s discontent.

In a free democratic society, it is only natural that the government cannot expect all civic groups to follow its wishes. Bending a law to enforce its will on civic bodies goes against the principles underpinning a free democratic society.

It is certainly necessary to make efforts to improve inter-Korean ties and promote peace on the peninsula. But this does not mean dire human rights conditions in the North can be ignored to enhance cross-border exchanges and cooperation. The issue of human rights should not be degraded to a political tool in dealing with Pyongyang.

The Unification Ministry said last week that efforts to improve the human rights of North Korean people, including guaranteeing their right to know, should be made in a way that does not escalate tensions on the peninsula. But there might be no way to address the issue without angering the repressive regime.

Sending leaflets into the North in itself does not pose a threat to the lives and safety of residents in border areas. It is the North’s irrational and unrestrained response that could put them in danger.

Catering to demands from Pyongyang will make it harder to achieve practical and substantial progress in inter-Korean relations over the long term and ensure lasting peace on the peninsula.

The Unification Ministry plans to go further to launch a probe into 25 government-registered civic groups, including 13 other organizations consisting of defectors, in order to look into whether they are involved in flying leaflets across the border and other activities running counter to their declared purposes of operation.

Adhering to this course of action could increase criticism that the Moon government feels more concerned about the safety of the Kim regime than the suffering ordinary North Koreans are forced to endure.