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Hearing on Seoul’s leaflet ban to open soon: US congressman

Civic groups run by defectors in South Korea send balloons containing anti-North Korea leaflets, along with food and medicine, near the inter-Korean border in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, April 2, 2016. (Yonhap)
Civic groups run by defectors in South Korea send balloons containing anti-North Korea leaflets, along with food and medicine, near the inter-Korean border in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, April 2, 2016. (Yonhap)
US Rep. Chris Smith, who until recently co-chaired the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said the commission will open a hearing in early March at the latest to discuss South Korea’s ban on the cross-border launching of anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets.

The leafleting is set to become a felony in March under legislation introduced by Seoul to protect residents near the border, in fear of retaliation by Pyongyang.

“I think appointments to commissions -- such as the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission which Rep. Smith co-chaired last year -- will likely take place in the next four to six weeks, as is normal,” Smith’s office told Radio Free Asia on Thursday.

Smith had earlier condemned the ban on leafleting as part of a growing disregard for civil liberties and acquiescence to the North, which demolished the inter-Korean liaison office last year and demanded that the South stop the campaign to reach out to the isolated North Korean populace.

On Friday Lee Jae-myung, governor of Gyeonggi Province, which borders the North, sided with the government, saying in a letter to the US Congress and the UN that the ban is the minimum action needed to protect residents of border towns and is a vehicle to de-escalate inter-Korean tension and improve ties.

The South Korean government maintains that freedom of expression is important, but comes second to the right to life. Municipal leaders representing residents of border towns have demanded a halt to the leafleting.

But opposition lawmakers in South Korea and human rights groups slam the ban as ill-conceived and without precedent in law. The rights to life and freedom of expression are not competing rights, they say.

Critics also dispute past cases that the government has cited as precedents for the ban.

“There was a Supreme Court ruling (favoring a ban) in 2016. But the court was not speaking of an outright ban on leafleting. It discussed adding rules on the leaflets’ content or distribution, which is nothing like the complete ban we see now,” said Chang Young-soo, a professor of constitutional law at Korea University.

Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based lawyer who served as a member of the US Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps in Korea from 1998 to 2002, said Seoul’s interpretation of an American law on censorship was wrong.

“The Blue House cites Schenck, a century-old decision allowing authoritarian wartime censorship of anti-draft speech. Schenck is one of the most discredited decisions in American legal history. ... The Supreme Court finally overturned it in 1969.”

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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