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US voices support for South Korean ‘balloon war’ efforts

Washington — The U.S. expressed its support for providing outside information to the people of North Korea even as attempts are made in South Korea to block leaflet campaigns aimed at sending information to the North.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been rising in recent weeks due to tit-for-tat exchanges between Pyongyang and Seoul over balloons they both have been sending across the inter-Korean border.

Responding to an inquiry by VOA’s Korean Service, a State Department spokesperson said on Monday that “it is critical for the people of North Korea to have access to independent information not controlled by the DPRK regime.”

“We continue to promote the free flow of information into, out of, and within the DPRK,” continued the spokesperson, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“We continue to urge North Korea to reduce tensions and cease any actions that could increase the risk of conflict,” the spokesperson added.

North Korea, listed by Human Rights Watch among “the most repressive countries in the world,” considers outside information a threat to the ruling regime’s survival and denies its people access to information.

The government heavily controls all forms of media and cracks down on people distributing, watching or listening to any South Korean cultural content.

In what it said was a response to South Korean activists sending balloons carrying leaflets into the North, Pyongyang has floated more than 1,600 balloons filled with trash and waste into South Korea since May 28.

In response, Seoul on June 4 fully suspended an inter-Korean military deal made in 2018 and resumed loudspeaker broadcasts at the border Sunday before halting them the following day.

The South Korean balloons, sent aloft by human rights activists, have carried leaflets conveying information about the outside world and the North Korean regime. They also carried thumb drives containing K-pop songs and dramas.

But the effort has caused controversy in South Korea, where attempts are being made to halt the campaign.

In September 2023, the South Korean constitutional court struck down a law banning the sending of leaflets to North Korea, saying it violated the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

Nevertheless, the opposition Democratic Party of Korea is attempting to apply other existing laws to block the campaign.

The opposition party, preferring engagement with North Korea, has been opposed to sending leaflets to North Korea. The anti-leaflet law was passed in December 2020 by the liberal party of former President Moon Jae-in six months after North Korea, expressing discontentment over leaflet activities, blew up an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, a town in North Korea near the border.

On Tuesday, Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the party, called leaflet activities “illegal under the current law.”

In June 2020, Lee, the then-governor of Gyeonggi Province, declared five cities in the province as “danger zones” under the Framework Act on the Management of Disasters and Safety. Gyeonggi Province borders North Korea.

Lee then issued an administrative order banning people from entering the areas to launch balloons.

Kim Dong-yeon, from the opposition party and the current governor of Gyeonggi Province, said on Wednesday a consideration is being made to declare some areas in the province “danger zones” to “prevent the launch of propaganda leaflets in accordance with related laws.”

He said he will “immediately dispatch provincial police to potential leaflet sites to bolster patrols and surveillance,” according to South Korea’s liberal daily Hankyore.

Questions have been raised in South Korea whether the police can stop leaflet-sending activities based on the Act on the Performance of Duties by Police Officers, according to Seoul-based news agency Yonhap. The act allows police to restrain people from causing damage to property or harm other people.

Yoon Hee-keun, National Police Agency commissioner, told reporters Monday that the leaflet campaigns cannot be blocked on the basis of that law.

He said this is because it is “unclear whether the trash-carrying balloons” sent by North Korea “would constitute an urgent and grave threat to the lives and bodies of the public, which is prerequisite for restricting them under the law.”

David Maxwell, vice president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy, told VOA on Tuesday via email that Seoul is “complying with the 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry that calls on people around the world to call out North Korea for its human rights abuses, one of which is the isolation of the people and the denial of all information going into the North.”

Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said, “The North Korean balloons are government actions and thus a violation of the armistice,” whereas balloons from the South are sent by non-government organizations.

Robert Rapson, who served as charge d’affaires and deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul in 2018-21, said while Seoul’s “decision to pause loudspeaker broadcasts” is “a positive step toward de-escalation, it should go further by also pausing balloon launches from the South.” 

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