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South Korea tightening grips on leaflets to North Korea Security Brief

Week of December 14| Issue 13

Team: PACOM, Matthew Dorreboom

South Korea tightening grips on leaflets to North Korea

Date: December 14, 2020

Location: South Korea

Parties involved: South Korea, North Korea, South Korean Activists, North Korean Defectors, First Deputy Director of the United Front Department Kim Yo-jong

The event: South Korea has passed a bill in Parliament that will ban propaganda leaflet launches across the border to neighbouring North Korea. The leaflets containing anti-Pyongyang messages have been launched over the border for decades along with other paraphernalia banned in North Korea. The ban is a push to crackdown on activism, which has in the past brought heightened tensions between the two nations. Activists, some of whom are North Korean defectors, are arguing against the bill stating that such a move only empowers North Korean provocations.

The implications:

  • The implemented legislation is a response to an earlier diplomatic incident that occured back in June 2020, when Kim Yo-jong cut cross-border communications with the South and threatened military action against South Korea. This diplomatic dispute revolved around the releasing of anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the South Korean border into the North. South Korea has since taken legal actions and charged involved activists, and the recently released legislation is a part of a push to deter further actions that may cause future diplomatic tensions between the two nations. This punishing of activism may be seen by some parties as appeasement towards North Korea.

  • The leaflets are sent across via balloons and have been the subject of heightened tensions. However, activists may continue balloon releases across the border in more discreet manners, at night, and/or within smaller groups.

  • While the balloons have been equipped with anti-Pyongyang messages, they have also carried paraphernalia such as USB sticks carrying banned material such as entertainment and other forms of media. Balloons have also had Bibles attached as well as other forms of information. It should be noted that while the balloons released by activists will now most likely be limited, the information from the outside world that reaches into North Korea is not dependent on these balloon drops, but rather through smuggling routes along the border with China. It is possible that some individuals or smaller groups may engage with already established smuggling routes to continue sending material across the border. However, this would be of higher risk than the balloon launches, therefore, the probability of such events taking place is limited.

Date: December 16, 2020

Location: South Korea

Parties involved: Activists, South Korean Government, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha

The event: Following the announcement of an ‘anti-leaflet’ law being passed in South Korea, human rights advocates have argued and raised the question around issues of free speech. South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha has publicly addressed these accusations by defending the new legislation. She described the activist balloon drops as touching a “very sensitive area”, and that taking measures against this kind of activism can be limited within the scope of the issue, citing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The implications:

  • Activists who have been a part of the cross-border balloon drops may turn towards the United Nations in a move to counter what may be viewed by some as breaches to freedoms of speech. A similar move was made by a group of South Korean NGOs back in July 2020, when the South Korean government was cracking down on groups and individuals involved in the leaflet launches to North Korea..

  • The more heavily left-leaning South Korean politicians, who have for the most part been silent in criticizing the North, would be welcoming of the comments made by Kyung-wha, as it can be seen as a reset of relationship building. Arguably, it can also be seen as a move of appeasement by some critics of the legislation.

Date: December 17, 2020

Location: Washington DC, United States of America

Parties involved: US Government, South Korean Government, The Washington Post, Republican Representative Christopher Smith, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun

The event: Unidentified sources from The Washington Post have stated that Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun has conveyed privately that the US government had expressed concerns about the South Korean legislation before it was passed in Seoul. The United States has kept quiet mostly quiet about the Bill since it passed into legislation, but critics which include some US lawmakers have expressed concerns around an undermining of freedoms of expression.

The implications:

  • While there has not been an outright public discussion in the US regarding the new legislation, minor implications may form between South Korea and the United States in the near future. This is dependent on how the United States positions itself around the new law. Republican Christopher Smith recently vowed to call upon the State Department to reevaluate South Korea in an annual report looking at human rights, and in a report on international religious freedom. This may sour dialogue between the two nations if this event transpired and was acknowledged by South Korea.

  • Depending on whether any additional events emerge, the United States will most likely stay quiet about the South Korean legislation in the meantime. If the US were to make a public statement regarding the legislation it would give legitimation to human rights activists who are concerned about it as there was criticism regarding crackdowns on activism back in July 2020.



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