SEOUL – South Korea said Thursday it planned to push new laws to ban activists from flying anti-Pyongyang leaflets over the border after North Korea threatened to end an inter-Korean military agreement reached in 2018 to reduce tensions if Seoul fails to prevent the protests.
The South’s desperate attempt to keep alive a faltering diplomacy will almost certainly trigger debates over freedom of speech in one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies.
Sending balloons across the border has been a common activist tactic for years, but North Korea considers it an attack on its government. Defectors and other activists in recent weeks have used balloons to fly leaflets criticizing the North’s authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un over his nuclear ambitions and dismal human rights record.
While Seoul has sometimes sent police officers to block such activities during sensitive times, it had resisted the North’s calls to fully ban them, saying the activists were exercising their freedoms.
The shift followed remarks earlier in the morning from Kim's powerful sister, who threatened to end the military agreement and said the North could permanently shut a liaison office and an inter-Korean factory park that have been major symbols of reconciliation.
In her statement released through state media, Kim Yo Jong called the defectors involved in the balloon launches “human scum” and “mongrel dogs” who betrayed their homeland and said it was “time to bring their owners to account,” referring to the government in Seoul.
Yoh Sang-key, spokesman of South Korea’s Unification Ministry, said the balloon campaigns were threatening the safety of residents living in the border area and that his government will push for legal changes to “fundamentally resolve tension-creating activities.”
When asked whether the ministry would specifically express regret over the North’s threat to abandon inter-Korean agreements, Yoh said: “we will substitute our evaluation (of the North Korean) statement with the announcement of the government position (on the issue).”
South Korea's ruling liberal party and its satellite party have 180 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly after winning April's elections, giving it a solid majority to win approval for the proposal in parliament.
An official from Seoul’s presidential office, who asked not to be named during a background briefing, said the balloon launches do “all harm, no good” and that the government will “sternly respond” to activities threatening security.
In 2014, soldiers exchanged fire after South Korean activists released propaganda balloons across the Demilitarized Zone, but no casualties were reported.
Activists in recent months have stopped releasing protest plans in advance to prevent police from stopping them.
North Korea's latest denouncement of the balloon protests follows months of frustration over the South’s unwillingness to defy U.S.-led international sanctions against the North.
Kim Yo Jong took a higher profile in North Korean affairs as part of her brother’s diplomatic efforts in 2018 and has been issuing her first public statements as that diplomacy has slowed in recent months. State media has carried her comments ridiculing Seoul for protesting a North Korean military drill but praising President Donald Trump for offering to help the North with anti-virus efforts.
“(South Korean) authorities will be forced to pay a dear price if they let this situation go on while making sort of excuses,” she said in advocating South Korea outlaw the balloon protests.
“If they fail to take corresponding steps for the senseless act against the fellow countrymen, they had better get themselves ready for possibility of the complete withdrawal of the already desolate Kaesong Industrial Park following the stop to tour of (Diamond Mountain), or shutdown of the (North-South) joint liaison office whose existence only adds to trouble, or the scrapping of the (North-South) agreement in military field which is hardly of any value.”
In a separate statement, the international affairs department of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party accused U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of spewing “rubbish” over his critical comments toward Beijing, which is Pyongyang’s biggest ally.
In a Fox News interview on Sunday, Pompeo said the Chinese Communist Party was putting Americans at risk because it has come to “view itself as intent upon the destruction of Western ideas, Western democracies, Western values.”
The department’s unidentified spokesman also commented on the intensifying protests in the United States over the death of George Floyd, saying that the unrest exposes harsh realities in America.
“Demonstrators enraged by the extreme racists throng even to the White House. This is the reality in the U.S. today. American liberalism and democracy put the cap of leftist on the demonstrators and threaten to unleash even dogs for suppression.”
Seoul has touted the military agreement, reached during the third summit between Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, as a major step in the peace process.
The Koreas had agreed to jointly search for human remains from the 1950-53 Korean War and take steps to reduce conventional military threats, such as establishing buffer and no-fly zones. They also removed some front-line guard posts and jointly surveyed a waterway near their western border to allow freer civilian navigation.
However, the North has been less enthusiastic about upholding inter-Korean agreements as the larger nuclear talks with the U.S. stalemate. North Korea has suspended virtually all cooperation with the South, while also pressuring Seoul to break away from Washington and restart the joint economic projects, which would breathe life into the North’s broken economy.
“If they truly value the (North-South) agreements and have a will to thoroughly implement them, they should clear their house of rubbish,” said Kim Yo Jong, who’s considered her brother’s closest confidant.
The liaison office in Kaesong has been closed since late January after the Koreas agreed to temporarily shut down until the coronavirus outbreak is controlled.
The North has also postponed plans to tear down South Korean-made hotels and other facilities at the North’s Diamond Mountain resort as part of its virus-prevention efforts. It has said there hasn’t been a single case of COVID-19 on its territory, a claim widely disbelieved.