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[Editorial] Deplorable measure

Anti-leafleting law runs risk of branding South Korea as human rights violator

The recent parliamentary passage of a bill aimed at penalizing the sending of anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the inter-Korean border into the North flatly ignores concerns that the measure violates the freedom of expression and blocks information from people living under one of the world’s most oppressive regimes.

The ruling Democratic Party of Korea, which holds an overwhelming majority in the 300-member National Assembly, rammed through the bill Monday despite strong objection by opposition lawmakers.

The enacted revision to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act subjects those sending leaflets into the North to up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 30 million won ($27,500).

Seoul’s Unification Ministry says the ban on the leafleting campaign by North Korean defectors and their supporters in the South is the “least possible measure” to keep residents in border regions out of harm’s way.

But the legislation is seen by critics as tantamount to succumbing to pressure from North Korea at the expense of the right to freedom of speech guaranteed by South Korea’s Constitution.

For more than a decade, Seoul let North Korean defectors and other activists in the South fly anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border, conceding that there were no legal grounds to prevent them from doing so.

A South Korean court ruling in 2015 made it clear that sending leaflets could not be prohibited in principle in respect of the freedom of expression, though it might be limited in case the lives and safety of people could be put in danger.

But President Moon Jae-in’s government, which has been preoccupied with inter-Korean reconciliation since it took office in 2017, reversed the long-held stance shortly after Pyongyang released a harshly worded statement in June pressing Seoul to take measures to prevent what it called “human scums” from flying leaflets critical of the repressive regime.

The statement issued in the name of Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, prompted officials at the Unification Ministry and ruling party lawmakers to scramble for legislation to ban the leafleting campaign.

Before the controversial bill was submitted to the parliament, the Unification Ministry revoked the operational permit for two defector groups engaged in sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets, saying the action fell outside their declared missions.

It is necessary to try to improve inter-Korean ties and promote peace on the peninsula. But it should not be forgotten that efforts to enhance cross-border exchanges and cooperation are eventually aimed at facilitating positive changes in the North Korean regime and improving the dire human rights situation in the isolated state.

Pandering to the brutal dictatorship of the North will do little to enhance inter-Korean reconciliation but hamper or distort the process of establishing truce peace on the peninsula.

In due response, defector activists and a group of conservative lawyers are moving to file a complaint against the anti-leafleting law with the Constitutional Court.

The passage of the law, which goes against global norms and conventions on human rights and civil liberties, also heightens the risk of South Korea being denounced in the international community as a violator of key democratic values.

If international rights groups bring it to the UN, Seoul could be driven into the position of being an accomplice to Pyongyang’s human rights oppression. Strong criticism by US administration officials and lawmakers of the anti-leafleting law could lead to the inclusion of South Korea on the watchlist of Washington’s annual country reports on human rights practices.

The controversial legislation could become an issue of contention between Seoul and Washington especially after US President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20, as he has pledged to place top priority of his foreign policy on promoting democracy and human rights across the globe.

Moon might be put in an awkward place when he is invited to a conference of the world’s major democratic nations, which Biden plans to convene next year.

It would be a decisive scene of shaking South Korea’s reputation as a democracy if Moon advocates the flawed law during the envisioned meeting. Moon is urged to veto it, though he does not seem inclined to do so.

The Constitutional Court should be the last bulwark to protect and preserve the democratic values and make the earliest possible ruling on the unconstitutionality of the anti-leafleting law.