(Jan. 19, 2021) On December 14, 2020, the South Korean National Assembly passed a bill to amend the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act (Act No. 7763, Dec. 29, 2005). The amendment, Act No. 17763, was published in Gwanbo (official gazette) on December 29, 2020. The amendment added a provision that prohibits acts that violate an inter-Korean agreement. One of the prohibited acts listed in the amendment is disseminating leaflets to unspecified people in North Korea without permission from the South Korean government. (Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act new art. 4, subpara.6; new art. 24, para. 1.) The amended law also has a penal provision that punishes such acts by imprisonment for up to three years or a fine up to 30 million won (about US$28,000). (New art. 25.) The amended law will become effective on March 30, 2021. (Act No. 17763, supp. art. 1.)
Background to the Bill
Inter-Korean propaganda leaflet competitions originated during the Korean War (1950–53) when U.S. forces and their allies spread about 2.5 billion leaflets in the areas occupied by or sheltering North Korean and Chinese forces. During the same period, North Korean forces spread about 30 million leaflets. These leaflets were sent by large balloons with the aim of demonstrating one side’s superiority over the other. The governments halted leaflet sending in 2004, though each government sent leaflets briefly in 2010 and 2016.
South Korean civic groups, however, did not stop sending balloons to North Korea. The balloons have carried anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets, calls for North Korean people to stand up against the regime, dollar bills, and radios, among other things. The South Korean government has generally restricted people from sending such leaflets to North Korea. For example, in 2008, the government requested activists not to send leaflets to North Korea. At the inter-Korean summit in 2018, the North and South agreed to “stop all the hostile acts including the loud-speaker broadcasting and scattering of leaflets” from May 1, 2018. After the summit, a Unification Ministry official repeatedly pleaded with civic groups to end balloon launches, according to news articles. Critics of the government have stated that the government has inappropriately valued diplomacy over freedom of speech.
On June 4, 2020, the North demolished the Kaesong border town South-North joint liaison office—a symbol of inter-Korean cooperation—after criticizing the leaflets sent by North Korean defectors’ groups. A North Korean official told South Korean officials at a meeting on June 5, 2020, that the South must enact a law to ban the leaflet sending if necessary. Since then, the South Korean government has tried to stop the leaflet dissemination. It filed a complaint with the police against the police for violating the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act (Act No. 4239, Aug. 1, 1990), which bans the sending of goods to North Korea without government permission (Act No. 4239, art. 13.) The South also started the process of dismantling two major defectors’ groups, and revoked their licenses on July 17, 2020. However, the Seoul Administrative Court temporarily blocked the suspensions in mid-August 2020.
Backlash against the Bill
The push for and passage of the bill triggered a backlash from international and domestic human rights organizations and media. They claim that the new law violates freedom of expression. Nearly 30 human rights groups in South Korea filed a constitutional complaint on December 29, 2020, over the ban on sending leaflets into North Korea criticizing the North Korean regime and requested an injunction against the new law.