North Korea’s level of anger about anti-North propaganda isn’t any less acidic today than it was six, twenty, or forty years earlier. The one big difference between now and then: whereas previous governments in Seoul would provide South-based defectors groups with a modicum of freedom, today’s South Korean government is far less sympathetic to such freelancing.
When a group calling itself Fighters for Free North Korea unleashed hundreds of thousands of anti-Kim leaflets into the North on May 31, President Moon Jae-in’s administration responded with almost immediate condemnation. On June 10, the South Korean Unification Ministry announced that the two defector groups involved in the operation would be charged with breaking the law. A week later, Seoul revoked their licenses, arguing that unauthorized leafleting of the North “severely hindered” the Moon administration’s peace agenda with Pyongyang and created environmental and safety risks for border communities.
Those measures were blasted as wholly inappropriate by Moon’s conservative political critics. Human rights organizations denounced the criminal charges as disgusting in terms of the optics and a government-sponsored violation of the very right to free speech and political expression South Koreans have valued since their country became a democracy.
Two months later, Seoul’s pressure campaign on North Korean defectors and activists has gotten the attention of former U.S. government officials who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. After the Unification Ministry announced inspections of twenty-five defector-run NGO’s and requests on another 289 organizations to prove each was properly registered, thirteen former U.S. officials—including Robert King, the former special envoy for North Korea human rights—sent an open letter to President Moon expressing their concerns, describing the strong tactics against the NGO’s as “a chilling form of intimidation” designed to deter them from continuing their work on behalf of the North Korean people.
[The National Interest]