If you drove by the towns near the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in 2017, chances were that you’d see hundreds of huge balloons—each inscribed with phrases like “Let Us End Tyranny”—launched into the air, looking like birds looming in the sky. The wind would whisk these balloons up over the DMZ to the North, where our long-lost brothers and sisters reside, and mega speakers would blast South Korean news and even trending K-pop songs.
Ever since the South Korean President Moon’s administration decided to penalize activists who send seemingly anti-North Korean material across the border, though, these hopeful scenes are no longer possible. South Korean non-profit organizations, such as Fighters for a Free North Korea, are now banned from sending leaflets, USB sticks, money, and Bible verses to North Korea, which they’ve done for years in hopes of giving citizens greater access to information.
Upon the authorization of the new Law on the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act, leaflets or broadcasts that share anti-North Korean sentiments are criminally punishable, with “penalties for violators of up to three years in jail or a fine of just under $30,000 for engaging in prohibited activities.” While the current administration claims that these measures were necessary to ensure peace with North Korea, all they truly did was sacrifice free speech and basic human rights, ultimately succumbing to the wishes of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Contrary to President Moon’s claim that informational leaflets are harmful to the national security of both nations, access to information is a lifeline; it is a basic necessity and a fundamental right that North Koreans are entitled to as global citizens. Given that their totalitarian regime does not provide or allow adequate distribution of information, information smuggling is crucial for North Korean citizens, and could be an essential tool to eventually find peace and reunite the peninsula. As happened in East Germany during the Cold War, North Koreans might come to better understand the extent of their government’s lies and see that a better life is possible and within reach just across the demilitarized zone. Eung Pyoung Lee, a former North Korean airforce captain, for example, made the decision to escape using information that is not widely available in North Korea, such as reports on the country’s economic stagnation.
The anti-leaflet law also sends an unacceptable message about the balance between North and South Korean power. From this decision, it can be inferred that South Korea caters to the Kim regime’s demands. Given that the initial catalyst for the leaflet drop ban was the Kim’s threat to cut off all current contacts and collaborative projects, such as the Gaesung industry complex, and potentially bomb territory near the DMZ, this conclusion is not far-fetched.
For a country like South Korea who prides itself on upholding democratic peace, submitting to Kim Jong Un’s demands only strengthens ties to a regime that directly opposes their values. Of course Kim’s government is angered by leafleteering; they consider any criticism of their system, or anything short of glorification of the Kim regime, as a direct threat to their power. But regardless of the North Korean leader’s hunger for power, supporting his interests at the expense of their citizens should not be South Korean policy.
What use is there to host another peace treaty, when the vast majority of North Koreans do not enjoy civil liberties and access to the outer-world? Is that truly the type of peace we desire? Peace is surely an admirable goal, but ideas such as Foreign minister Kang Kyung Hwa’s thoughts in no circumstances should “free speech be valued over the immediate safety of the Korean population” ignore the fact that since the Korean War, the Korean population has never truly been safe.
I admit that this opinion might sound insensitive to the real-life dangers that may lie ahead. But time and time again, the DPRK has found excuses to provoke a fight. During the tenure of the two previous South Korean presidents, both from conservative and liberal administrations, the North sank a South Korean warship, bombarded the Republic of Korea territory, and laid mines in the DMZ. Thus, giving in to Kim’s tactics only validates North Korean aggression as an effective strategy. While there are other methods to promote information access instead of leaflet drops (for example, radio and smuggling goods), South Korean NGOs should not be banned from using non-violent methods to encourage free speech and access to information.
It is beyond troubling that a regime that restricts fundamental human rights for its own citizens swayed the South Korean National Assembly and Moon administration. Both the North Korean and South Korean people’s freedom is at stake. I desperately hope that we will not continue down this path towards peace at all costs and create a future where we willfully acquiesce to the demands of North Korea’s totalitarian regime, risking basic freedom of speech on both sides of the border.