South Korea to charge defector groups over North leaflets

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South Korea's Unification Ministry's spokesman Yoh Sang-key speaks during a briefing at the government complex in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, June 10, 2020. South Koreas government on Wednesday said it will sue two activist groups that have sent anti-Pyongyang leaflets and plastic bottles filled with rice to the North for allegedly creating tensions between the rivals. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

SEOUL – SEOUL, South KoreaSouth Korea’s government said Wednesday that it will press charges against two activist groups that have been floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets and bottles filled with rice to North Korea.

Any action against the groups is likely to trigger a debate over freedom of expression in South Korea, and whether President Moon Jae-in’s liberal government is sacrificing democratic principles to keep alive his ambitions for inter-Korean engagement.

The announcement by Seoul’s Unification Ministry came a day after North Korea said it was cutting off all communication channels with South Korea over its inability to prevent North Korean defectors and other activists from flying the leaflets across the border.

One of the targeted defector-activists condemned what he described as a “treacherous” move by Seoul and vowed to launch even more leaflets across the border in coming weeks, using not only balloons but also drones.

Yoh Sang-key, the ministry’s spokesman, told reporters the two organizations facing charges had “created tensions between the South and North and brought danger to the lives and safety of (South Korean) residents in border areas.”

The ministry said last week that the government would push new laws to ban activists from flying the leaflets across the border, after the North threatened to end an inter-Korean military agreement reached in 2018 to reduce tensions if Seoul failed to prevent the protests.

Aside from severing government and military communication channels, the North also said it would permanently shut down a liaison office and a factory park in the border town of Kaesong, which have been major symbols of reconciliation.

For years, activists have floated huge balloons into North Korea carrying leaflets criticizing leader Kim Jong Un over his nuclear ambitions and dismal human rights record. The leafleting has sometimes triggered a furious response from North Korea, which bristles at any attempt to undermine its leadership.