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[Newsmaker] International human rights group condemns anti-leafleting bill as violation of free expression

Defector-run groups floating anti-North Korea leaflets across the border (Yonhap)
Defector-run groups floating anti-North Korea leaflets across the border (Yonhap)

A human rights group condemned the South Korean parliament’s push to penalize the launching of propaganda leaflets into North Korea as a violation of the freedom of expression, calling on the National Assembly to reject the proposed legislature.
 
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization, said in a statement Saturday that if the bill that bans leafleting campaigns is enacted, it would violate South Koreans’ rights to the freedom of expression, making “engaging in humanitarianism and human rights activism a criminal offense.”
 
Last week, the parliament’s foreign affairs committee passed an amendment for the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act that seeks to impose punishments of up to three years in jail or fines of up to 30 million won ($27,700) on those distributing propaganda leaflets and other materials, as well as “money or other monetary benefits,” across the military demarcation line. The revision, introduced by the ruling Democratic Party of Korea lawmakers, is expected to easily pass the final vote session slated for Wednesday, as the ruling party controls the 300-seat parliament.
 
HRW raised concern that the bill’s “overbroad language” could hamper humanitarian efforts in the North, as it could be interpreted as banning any items of value, which could also include food or medicine.
 
“The South Korean government seems more interested in keeping North Korea’s Kim Jong-un happy than letting its own citizens exercise their basic rights on behalf of their northern neighbors,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The proposed law does a great disservice to the people of both South Korea and North Korea, and the National Assembly should vote against it.”
 
Lawmakers proposed the revision in June amid strained inter-Korean ties after Pyongyang demolished a joint liaison office, citing anti-NK propaganda leaflets sent by North Korean defectors here as the reason. 
  
The ruling party said the bill is designed to ensure the safety of residents at the border area, with the Unification Ministry, which is in charge of inter-Korean affairs, welcoming the move and saying it will protect residents and ease cross-border tensions.
 
But HRW called the bill an apparent move to help the government’s “diplomatic efforts related to weapons proliferation,” noting the legislature introduction as well as the crackdowns on defector groups sending leaflets to the North began immediately after a public complaint from Kim Yo-jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister.
 
“The South Korean government should abandon its misguided strategy of trying to win favor with Kim Jong-un by cracking down on its own citizens,” said Sifton.  “Promoting human rights is not at odds with effective foreign policy.”
 
Kim Yo-jong in June had strongly condemned the leaflet launches, saying Seoul would be “forced to pay a dear price” if it did not prevent such activities.
 
By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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