SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A South Korean activist said Thursday he launched a million propaganda leaflets by balloon into North Korea this week, in his first such campaign while standing trial for past leafleting under a contentious new law that criminalizes such actions.
The law that took effect in March 2021 and punishes anti-Pyongyang leafleters with up to three years in prison has been hotly debated in South Korea, with critics saying Seoul's liberal government was sacrificing freedom of speech to improve ties with rival North Korea.
Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector-turned-activist, said he resumed his leafleting campaign this week after halting such activities for a year during a police investigation and court trial for sending balloons across the border in April last year. The trial is continuing and no verdict has been issued.
On Monday and Tuesday, his group floated 20 huge balloons carrying leaflets critical of North Korea’s nuclear program and the Kim family's hereditary rule across the tense Korean border, Park said.
Park said the balloons also contained pictures of South Korea’s incoming conservative president, Yoon Suk Yeol, to show North Koreans the difference between the South’s election system and the North’s father-to-son successions. He said small books and USB sticks, which carry information about South Korea’s economic and cultural development, were also put in the balloons.
“North Korea has deceived us. It once said it would scrap its nukes but its leader Kim Jong Un and (his sister) Kim Yo Jong are now threatening to launch preemptive nuclear strikes on South Korea and the international community. I want to condemn such acts,” Park said by phone.
Police in Gyeonggi province, who have jurisdiction over the border areas where Park claimed to have launched the leaflets, said they were checking details about Park’s activities. They said they weren’t aware of Park’s reported leafleting in advance.
Park said some of his leaflets flown this week reached Pyongyang and other North Korean cities. Experts say many leaflets launched in the past landed in frontline South Korean areas. North Korea hasn't reacted to any leafleting this week.
North Korea is extremely sensitive about any outside attempt to undermine Kim Jong Un’s leadership and weaken his absolute control over the country’s 26 million people, most of whom have little access to foreign news. In 2020, North Korea blew up an empty, South Korean-built liaison office on its territory after making a furious response to South Korean civilian leafleting campaigns. In 2014, North Korea fired at propaganda balloons flying toward its territory and South Korea returned fire, though there were no casualties.
In late 2020, South Korean lawmakers supporting outgoing, liberal President Moon Jae-in’s appeasement policy on North Korea passed the anti-leafleting law, arguing it is meant to avoid unnecessarily provoking North Korea and ensure the safety of frontline South Korean residents.
Moon will be replaced by Yoon, a former top prosecutor who has promised to take a tougher line on North Korea, on May 10. Yoon’s party has harshly criticized the anti-leafleting law.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.