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[News Focus] Moon's leaflet stance effort to manage NK ties before summit with Biden: experts

President Moon Jae-in delivers a special address at Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Monday, to mark the fourth anniversary of his inauguration. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in delivers a special address at Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Monday, to mark the fourth anniversary of his inauguration. (Yonhap)

In a speech marking the start of his final year in office, President Moon Jae-in issued a strongly worded statement, apparently condemning an activist group for sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the inter-Korean border. 

“It is never desirable to dampen inter-Korean relations by violating inter-Korean agreements and current laws. I stress that the government has no choice but to strictly enforce the laws,” Moon said Monday in a televised speech.

While the president did not specifically say which activities violated the agreements or the laws, it was apparent that Moon was targeting Park Sang-hak, a well-known North Korean defector who claimed to have dispatched propaganda leaflets into the North in defiance of a new law that criminalizes such actions.

Since last year, the Moon administration has carried out a broad campaign to stop leafleting and also enacted the anti-leaflet law, but the president has barely mentioned the topic in public. The rare mention of it in his 20-minute speech, according to experts, can be seen as an effort to stably manage the Korean Peninsula situation to prevent Pyongyang from engaging in provocation ahead of the crucial summit between the US and Korea, where the future policy direction toward the recalcitrant regime hangs in the balance.

“If the Korean government responds to the leaflet-launch issue passively, it could provide a pretext for North Korea to take action that could aggravate inter-Korean relations. And as a result, there is a possibility that the current administration couldn’t do anything to (revive) inter-Korean ties until the term ends,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute.

Cheong added that if inter-Korean relations worsen over the leaflet issue before Moon meets US President Joe Biden in Washington on May 21, it will further weaken the trust Washington has placed in Seoul concerning North Korean issues.

The two leaders are to meet for their first summit talks, and North Korea is expected to top the agenda, as the US has just completed its monthslong policy review on the reclusive regime. 

Moon, who is under a compressed timeline before his term ends next May, has set sights on the goal of achieving “irreversible peace” on the Korean Peninsula and is making last-ditch efforts to salvage his stalled diplomacy with the North.

Many view the upcoming summit as a critical time where the allies will discuss and establish a consensus on how to deal with North Korea going forward. It could be Moon’s last chance to push the US to seek engagement with North Korea and kick-start stalled nuclear talks.

Hong Min, a senior researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification, echoed a similar view and stressed that Moon’s remarks on the leaflet issue show his focus on preventing the situation on the peninsula from getting worse, rather than proposing new inter-Korean projects or other new ideas before the summit in Washington. 

“The time requires prudent management of the situation on the peninsula, as the US’ policy on North Korea is about to be uncovered. This is not the right timing for the Seoul government to propose something new,” said Hong. “With the summit approaching and the North also waiting on the US’ policy to unveil, there is a possibility that North could take a hard-line stance against action that provoke the regime.”

Earlier this month, Kim Yo-jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s powerful younger sister, condemned the South for failing to stop the anti-Pyongyang leaflet launches, saying the launches were a “serious provocation” against the North and it was looking into “corresponding action.”

Kim Yo-jong was at the center of the attacks against Seoul over the leaflet launches last year. Last June, the North demolished the inter-Korean liaison office in the border town of Kaesong in anger over similar launches, after Kim Yo-jong delivered a series of statements that warned of further action.

On Monday, just hours after Moon’s speech, the police summoned Park and questioned him for five hours over his alleged defiance of the leafleting ban.

The police also searched Park’s office last week after he claimed that his group, Fighters for a Free North Korea, had launched balloons carrying 500,000 anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets and US dollar bills into the North between April 25 and 29.

If confirmed, the group’s action would be the first known violation of the Seoul government’s ban on leafleting that went into effect in late March. Under the law, violators can face a maximum penalty of three years in prison or a fine of 30 million won ($26,793).

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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