SEOUL—For years, activist groups in South Korea have sent everything from Bibles to K-pop across the border to the North. Now that could cost them up to three years in prison and a $27,000 fine.
Late Monday, South Korea banned sending material across the border that was critical of the North Korean regime without permission from the Seoul government.
The new law, backed by the ruling party of President Moon Jae-in, drew criticism from North Korean defectors and human rights groups, who accused the government of limiting free speech and undermining democratic values in an effort to improve relations with Pyongyang.
Inter-Korean ties have skidded to a low point this year. Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, blasted Seoul in June for allowing a defector-led group to tie antiregime leaflets to balloons and float them into the cloistered regime. Her criticism came days before North Korea blew up a jointly run liaison office. Ms. Kim said the leaflets had violated pledges to tone down hostilities between the two countries.
“Before making lame excuses, they should at least make a law to stop the farce of human scum,” Ms. Kim said in the June statement.
The new law requires a range of antiregime materials—which can include USB thumb drives, money, loudspeaker broadcasts and printed materials—be approved by South Korea’s government before crossing into the North. It also applies to activity considered a serious danger to South Koreans, conducted through unspecified third countries. Seoul officials haven’t offered detailed guidance on what the conditions for approvals would be.
The inflow of leaflets, news, dramas and movies have reshaped the views of many North Koreans. Nearly two-thirds of escapees who have relocated to South Korea have been exposed to outside information, according to recent surveys from the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a Seoul-based group. Many said the outside information increased their desire to leave.
The Kim regime has publicly executed those it accused of widely selling or distributing content smuggled from across the border, Pyongyang watchers say.
Before the bill’s passage, Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), who co-chairs a U.S. congressional human rights commission, said he would ask the State Department, in its annual human rights report, to re-evaluate South Korea’s commitment to democratic values. “It may very well be that we will see South Korea put on a watch list,” Mr. Smith said last week.
Mr. Moon, who has sought to warm ties with the North, has fielded a barrage of criticism from human-rights groups. Last month, South Korea, for the second straight year, didn’t co-sponsor a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights violations.
“ ‘It is a pity the National Assembly follows the instruction of Kim Yo Jong.’ ”
In a letter Tuesday, an international coalition of more than 300 civil society groups called on Mr. Moon to give priority to North Korean human rights, especially during a pandemic when the Kim regime has tightened surveillance and reportedly executed individuals caught while trying to flee.
“President Moon Jae-in should condemn North Korea’s abusive measures on Covid-19, not look the other way for the sake of inter-Korean diplomacy,” said Eun-Kyoung Kwon, secretary-general at the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea, which signed the letter.
The new restrictions against antiregime materials were necessary to protect the safety of South Koreans living near the border and to uphold inter-Korean agreements, said Choi Ji-eun, a spokeswoman for Mr. Moon’s ruling Democratic Party. South Korea’s unification ministry objected to assertions the law infringed on free speech, adding it applies only to activities that pose a serious threat to South Korean citizens.
The revision passed by a 187-to-0 vote, with 113 members of the country’s opposition parties abstaining after a filibuster earlier this week.
“It is a pity the National Assembly follows the instruction of Kim Yo Jong,” said Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat, who this year was elected as an opposition-party legislator.
Some activist groups pledged to maintain their work. One of them, Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector who heads a group that sent leaflets across the border, planned to challenge the law in court if it takes effect, according to his lawyer. The bill will become law after three months.
The law caps off a contentious year between the Moon administration and human rights groups working on North Korean issues.
About a year ago, the Moon administration deported two North Korean fishermen who had requested to relocate to the South. Seoul officials said the two individuals, accused of murdering their fellow fishing crew, were criminal suspects and allowing them to stay could endanger South Koreans.
This year, the South Korean government has limited access to recent escapees for research and required dozens of human-rights organizations to resubmit documentation over concerns their work put escapees at risk.
“I cannot believe that a country like South Korea does not have a more dignified approach to North Korea,” said Teodora Gyupchanova, a researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, one of the groups asked to provide extra documents.
Write to Timothy W. Martin at email@example.com
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