The ruling party’s push for legal changes to stop people from sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the inter-Korean border came to a halt Tuesday at the National Assembly’s Diplomatic Affairs and Unification Committee.
Nine opposition and independent lawmakers on the 21-member committee teamed up to form a subpanel to coordinate different positions on the proposed bill. Parliamentary law stipulates that subcommittees can be set up for up to 90 days of additional deliberation with consent from more than a third of the lawmakers on each standing committee.
The move blocked the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, which commands an overwhelming parliamentary majority, from passing the controversial bill in a plenary session this week.
The liberal ruling party may be frustrated further if the bill is shelved indefinitely -- which seems likely given that the six-member subcommittee comprises three lawmakers each from the ruling and opposition parties, and a two-thirds majority is needed to reach a conclusion.
Regardless of the fate of the bill, submitting it to the parliament was inappropriate and undesirable.
For more than a decade, Seoul let North Korean defectors and their supporters in South Korea send anti-Pyongyang leaflets, conceding that there were no legal grounds to prohibit them from doing so.
But President Moon Jae-in’s government, which has been preoccupied with inter-Korean reconciliation since Moon took office in 2017, reversed the long-held stance shortly after the North issued a harshly worded statement in early June, calling on the South to stop defectors from flying leaflets across the border.
Shortly after the statement was issued in the name of Kim Yo-jong, the increasingly powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, officials at the Unification Ministry and ruling party lawmakers raised the idea of legislation to ban the leafleting campaign.
Pyongyang continued to up the pressure on Seoul by demolishing an inter-Korean liaison office within its border town of Kaesong and threatening to take military action.
Before the legislation was introduced, the Unification Ministry revoked the recognition of two defector groups engaged in sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets, saying the action fell outside the groups’ declared missions.
It plans to go further in mid-August and begin inspecting 25 civic groups registered with the ministry, including 13 organizations run by North Korean defectors, to see if they are operating in accordance with their stated mandates. Despite the ministry’s repeated denials, there is speculation that the upcoming probe is intended to prevent defectors and other activists from campaigning against the repressive North Korean regime.
Recent moves by the Moon administration and the ruling party ignore repeated appeals from human rights advocates at home and abroad, who argue that the leafleting campaign should be allowed to continue to provide information to ordinary people in the North and guarantee freedom of expression in the democratic South.
It is certainly necessary to try to improve inter-Korean ties and promote peace on the peninsula. But that does not mean the dire human rights situation in the North can be ignored to enhance cross-border exchanges and cooperation.
In a free and democratic society, the government cannot expect civic groups to follow its wishes. Bending the law to force its will on civic bodies goes against the principles underpinning a free and democratic society.
If the proposed revision passed, the law on inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation would classify leaflets and balloons carrying them as goods traded between the two Koreas. It would also define the sending of fliers as a form of gathering or communication between residents in the South and the North, as stipulated in the National Security Law.
These changes are designed to make the leaflet launches subject to approval by the unification minister and punish unapproved launches on the grounds that they have not been endorsed by the government.
It does not make sense to include anti-Pyongyang leaflets in the same category as manufactured products and commodities sent to the North for humanitarian and other limited purposes. It is even more absurd to consider the sending of leaflets a form of communication or gathering as stipulated in the security law. That provision in the law is intended to punish South Korean citizens for contacting North Korean agents.
Ruling party lawmakers are advised to withdraw the senseless bill instead of attempting to push it through over the objections of opposition lawmakers, which appear to be in line with public sentiment.