SEOUL — A North Korean defector has been charged with violating a South Korean law banning the distribution of propaganda leaflets along the inter-Korean border, prosecutors and lawyers said Friday.
Park Sang-hak is the first person to be charged under the new law, which critics say places a policy of engagement with North Korea above human rights and is unconstitutional.
For years, Mr. Park and others like him have launched balloons in North Korea loaded with propaganda leaflets urging North Koreans to rise up against their authoritarian leader, Kim Jong-un. Under the law, which came into force last March, sending such leaflets has become a crime punishable by a fine or a prison term of up to three years.
Mr Park defied the ban in April by launching 10 balloons carrying half a million leaflets. Later, the police raided his office and interrogated him. In July, they formally asked prosecutors to charge Mr. Park under the law, which President Moon Jae-in has pledged to strictly enforce.
Lee Hun, Mr. Park’s lawyer, said on Friday he had received a formal notice from prosecutors that Mr. Park had been charged on Wednesday with ‘attempting’ to send leaflets because investigators lacked evidence. that the leaflets had indeed landed in the North. .
A remnant of the Cold War, the leaflets have created tension not only between the two Koreas, but also between North Korean human rights activists and Mr Moon’s government.
North Korea called the leaflets an “intolerable provocation”. Mr Moon’s government sponsored the new law after accusing the activists of unnecessarily provoking the North.
The president’s conservative critics have accused him of suppressing free speech and aiding Mr Kim’s totalitarian regime “at the behest of North Korea”.
“If a bad law is a law, send me to prison!” Mr. Park said on Friday. “Even if they send me to prison, my colleagues will continue to send leaflets.”
Mr Lee, the lawyer, said he planned to take the case to the Constitutional Court and ask it to strike down the law.
After Mr Park dropped the leaflets in April, Mr Kim’s sister and spokeswoman Kim Yo-jong called him a ‘dirty human scum’ and warned him of the ‘consequences’ .
About 33,800 North Koreans have fled to South Korea since the 1990s. Mr Park, who fled in 1999, stood out for his very public campaign for North Korean human rights, although that critics consider it theatrical.
His group, Fighters For Free North Korea, calls the ruling Kim family in Pyongyang womanizers and “dictatorial pigs”, and burns them in effigy at outdoor rallies in South Korea. His leaflets also call Mr Kim a “human butcher” who killed his uncle and half-brother.
There has been no credible study of how many North Koreans read or react to propaganda leaflets. Analysts say the leaflets are not as effective as radio broadcasts and USB sticks smuggled across the Chinese border. But throwing leaflets is perhaps the activists’ most visible campaign tactic.
Mr. Park has often invited the media to his balloon launch ceremonies, where the big hydrogen balloons float across the world’s most heavily armed border. Once in North Korea, timers click and tear off vinyl packs. Leaflets, one-dollar bills, mini-Bibles and USB drives full of content banned in the North fall from the sky like snowflakes.
Mr. Kim is keeping his people under a complete news blackout in North Korea, shutting down the internet and ensuring that all radio and television stations receive only his government’s propaganda broadcasts. The Seoul government said the balloons endanger people living on both sides of the border.
In 2014, the North Korean military fired shells at balloons drifting across the border, but instead hit South Korean villages, prompting the South to retaliate.
In a poll last May, 51% of respondents in South Korea supported the new ban, while 37% said it violated freedom of expression. Among those living near the border, the support rate was 57-60%. Cities and provinces near the border have also called for the punishment of Mr. Park.
When North Korea in 2020 blew up a liaison office on its side of the border where officials from the two Koreas had worked together, it cited South Korea’s failure to implement a deal banning leaflets and other propaganda wars as an impetus. Mr Moon’s government accelerated its efforts to push the anti-leaflet bill through parliament after the Liaison Office was destroyed.
South Korea’s conservative opposition noted a stark contrast between Mr. Moon’s crackdown on the leaflets and his subdued reaction when North Korea killed a South Korean fisheries official or when the country compared Mr. Moon to a “parrot” and a “mongrel dog” who followed orders. the United States.
“President Moon seems to believe that the only way to keep peace on the Korean peninsula is to do nothing that might upset brother and sister Kim in the North,” said Tae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat. became a member of the opposition. legislator in Seoul.
Mr Park, who is due to stand trial in the coming weeks for violating the leaflet ban, has harsh critics himself, many of whom are also North Korean human rights activists.
Lee Min-bok, another defector from North Korea, criticized not only the law but also Mr. Park, who he said jeopardized the entire balloon campaign by provoking the two governments.
Mr. Lee began sending leaflets in 2006, before Mr. Park, and favored low-key operations that did not attract media attention. He launched leaflets focused on providing news from outside North Korea, rather than criticism of the Kim regime.
“The extremely provocative language in Park Sang-hak’s leaflets has nothing to do with promoting human rights in North Korea, but is designed to appeal to conservatives and provoke progressives in the South,” said Mr. .Lee. “He wants to become a hero by going to jail for fighting this law.”
Mr. Park’s legal troubles precede Friday’s indictment. He is also on trial for breaking a fundraising law. In August, he was sentenced to an eight-month suspended prison sentence for beating a South Korean television journalist who showed up at his home to request an interview.
Mr Park has denied the allegations against him and called his critics ‘snakes’ and ‘hypocrites’. He often brings up an incident in 2011, when a man was arrested in South Korea for plotting to assassinate him with a poisoned needle at the behest of North Korea.
“Kim Jong-un wants to kill me and President Moon wants to send me to jail,” Mr Park told reporters in May. “But they can’t stop us from telling the facts and the truth.”