IN THE PAST POLICE HAVE OCCASIONALLY stopped activists from leafleting, especially during sensitive periods of North-South relations. But Seoul has never before banned the practice. The government considered it an act of free speech, protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Moon administration has sought peaceful reunification with North Korea, and ending the Korean War has become the government’s top priority while human rights move to the back burner. (While hostilities between the North and South stopped in 1953 with an armistice, the war never technically ended.) The administration has cut by 92 percent funding to groups defending North Korean human rights and tried to silence those that the Kim regime finds most irritating: activists, defectors, balloon launchers, radio broadcasters, and others trying to get information into North Korea.
Inter-Korea relations deteriorated after a canceled summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Vietnam last year as the North refused to give up its nuclear arsenal. North Korea is upset the South has not stopped the crushing U.S. and United Nations sanctions on the country. Kim Yo Jong’s recent attacks on balloon launchers came as she has taken on a more public role (her brother is rumored to be in poor health).
“She’s taken the lead in stopping the efforts of the human rights activists as a way to show her ability and talent and consolidate her position,” said Suzanne Scholte, president of Defense Forum Foundation. She said Moon’s response of agreeing to ban the balloon launches and pressing charges against the activist groups “is helping elevate [Kim Yo Jong’s] stature in the regime as she has been able to accomplish what her father and grandfather couldn’t.”
Gyeonggi province, where the balloons launch, banned activists from entering border areas, claiming it endangers the safety of its residents. It used city laws, including those regulating littering and outdoor advertising, to justify arresting and fining activists. Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung also began investigations into four activist groups including Fighters for a Free North Korea and VOMK, alleging the groups collected donations for profit.
In mid-July the Ministry of Unification revoked licenses for Fighters for a Free North Korea and Kuen Saem. The groups, while not illegal, can no longer raise funds or access benefits for registered nongovernmental organizations.
Park Sang-hak also said the government has taken away his bodyguards, forbidden him from leaving the country, and investigated his bank accounts. In addition, a TV station revealed his home address, exposing him to potential assassins.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Park Sang-hak said he was shocked at Moon’s appeasement. “South Korea … is a democracy, and distributing leaflets is a basic act of free speech,” he wrote. “It is nonviolent and educational and allows citizens to engage in direct communication with those suffering under North Korean oppression.”
The government intimidation does not end with balloon launches. The Ministry of Unification announced it would investigate the records and offices of 25 civil society organizations working on North Korean human rights issues and defector resettlement. It also required an additional 64 nonprofit groups working in the same field to submit documents to prove they meet NGO requirements.
Scholte noted the investigations would damage the groups’ reputations and may lose them donors since people fear donating to organizations targeted by the government.
“It’s really awful, the country [the defectors] fled to because it had freedom is coming against them as well,” Scholte said.
Scholte is also chairman of Free North Korea Radio, which broadcasts shortwave news programs into North Korea. She said that because of her work, North Korean hackers have launched cyberattacks against her. In April she received what looked like an email from The Atlantic journalist Uri Friedman asking for her comment for a story, but when she responded, her email bounced back. She called Friedman, who told her he had not sent her an email.
She also received an email from a contact who works at the South Korean Embassy that included a link to a report on North Korean human rights issues. But she learned he hadn’t sent her an email either. Intelligence officials have linked the hackers to North Korea. In the past, Scholte had also received death threats through email, and North Korean newspapers published negative political cartoons and op-eds about her.
She said the attacks reveal the effectiveness of activists’ radio broadcasts and balloons. The broadcasts include news, stories from defectors, gospel programs, and messages from Korean War veterans and U.S. lawmakers to dispel North Korean propaganda that Americans are evil.
The Parks have vowed to continue their work. “If Moon continues to subdue activists, academics, and anyone opposed to his policies, he will not only fail to help end dictatorship in North Korea,” Park Sang-hak wrote. “He will also erode liberal democracy in the South.”