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[Editorial] Self-inflicted disgrace

US congressional hearing on anti-leaflet law set to put Seoul in embarrassing position

A bipartisan caucus of the US House of Representatives is to hold a hearing this week on South Korea’s controversial legislation to ban the sending of anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the inter-Korean border into the North. Five witnesses, including Suzanne Scholte, a US activist devoted to shedding light on the dire human rights situation in North Korea, will testify at the hearing scheduled for Thursday.

The caucus, known as the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said concerns had been expressed by observers that the anti-leaflet law could interfere with efforts to promote human rights in the North, including programs funded by the US government.

The law has been criticized for violating freedom of expression guaranteed under South Korea’s Constitution as well as blocking outside information from people living under one of the world’s most oppressive regimes.

The congressional commission suggested that the legislation prohibiting the leafleting campaign would be addressed in the wider context of basic rights violations, saying it would hold a “hearing on freedom of expression on the Korean Peninsula.” The US State Department earlier described in detail the anti-leaflet law in its annual global human rights report in a section on South Korea, stressing the importance of free flows of information into the North.

President Moon Jae-in’s administration and ruling party lawmakers should feel responsible for having put South Korea in this embarrassing position.

The revision to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act, which was rammed through in December by the ruling Democratic Party of Korea with an overwhelming parliamentary majority, subjects those sending leaflets into the North to up to three years in prison or fines of up to 30 million won ($26,800).

For more than a decade, Seoul let North Korean defectors and other activists here 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 out of respect for freedom of expression.

But the Moon administration, which has been preoccupied with inter-Korean reconciliation since it assumed 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 scum” from flying leaflets critical of the repressive regime. The statement issued in the name of Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, prompted officials at the Unification Ministry and ruling party legislators to scramble for legislation to ban the leafleting campaign.

They argued the measure was needed to keep residents in border regions out of harm’s way as North Korean troops often sought to stop balloons carrying leaflets from crossing the border by shooting them down. But no one has so far been killed or wounded in the course of sending the leaflets into the North, with critics describing the argument as a “fabrication of danger.”

In the eyes of many people, the anti-leaflet legislation is nothing more than yet another measure taken by the Moon government to pander to Pyongyang to carry forward its peace agenda.

Moon and his aides should now reconsider their ill-conceived approach to the recalcitrant regime in the North.

Kim Yo-jong last month mocked Moon as a “parrot” that repeats Washington’s “gangster-like logic.” Her mockery of the South Korean leader came after Moon said any action that could undercut the mood for dialogue was undesirable in his restrained response to Pyongyang’s latest test-firing of short-range ballistic missiles.

It is all the more insulting for the Moon administration, which went so far as to enact the anti-leaflet law as she demanded, even if this meant prompting US members of Congress to hold a hearing on it.

Seoul tried in vain to stop the planned hearing from proceeding. Now Unification Ministry officials seek to downplay its ramifications.

What the Moon government should do instead is repeal the ill-conceived law, which has done nothing but invite continuous insults from Pyongyang and mounting criticism from Washington.