The government of leftist South Korean President Moon Jae-in canceled the operating licenses of two non-governmental organizations on Friday for sending leaflets with banned news and information into North Korea.
Without an operational license, the two NGOs, Fighters for a Free North Korea and Kuensaem, will no longer enjoy tax-exempt status and, according to Reuters, lose the legal right to organize fundraisers for their activities. Moon’s government appears to hope that these restrictions will limit their ability to send humanitarian aid and news of the outside world to North Koreans, living under one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
The move follows a turbulent June in which North Korea’s state media apparatus launched an obsessive campaign against the leaflets, culminating in threats of war and the bombing of the North-South cooperative complex in Kaesong, South Korea. Pyongyang blew the facility up having paid none of the cost of building it. Prior to its destruction, the countries used the offices for a twice-daily phone call to maintain communication since 2018. In multiple statements laden with personal insults, Kim Yo-jong, sister to dictator Kim Jong-un, blamed the leaflets for Pyongyang’s sudden belligerence.
“The act of scattering leaflets and goods by these entities … gravely hindered the government’s unification policies and efforts towards unification, jeopardized the lives and safety of residents in border regions and created a tense situation on the Korean Peninsula,” the Unification Ministry scolded in a statement on Friday.
The statement reportedly did not mention the other types of items that these groups typically send across the border, often via balloons or the sea — bottles full of rice, sanitary masks, and other goods. It also did not discuss the content on the leaflets that Pyongyang consistently protests. Often, the leaflets include merely information on current events outside of North Korea. Some leaflets also condemn Kim Jong-un for human rights abuses. The communist North Korean regime bans citizens from consuming any media not created by the North Korean state. Reports suggest Pyongyang executes individuals caught watching smuggled Hollywood movies, for example.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Unification Ministry deputy spokesperson Cho Hey-sil elaborated on the government’s insistence that it must control all attempts to aid the North Korean people.
“Sending leaflets to the North heightens inter-Korean tension and jeopardizes the safety of residents in border areas, and it must be immediately halted,” Cho insisted. “Efforts to improve human rights in North Korea and to guarantee North Koreans their ‘right to know’ must be done in a way that does not create inter-Korean tensions and avoids any harm to the resident.”
In addition to the actions of the Moon administration, anti-communist human rights groups have endured consistent violent insults from the North Korean state. In June, state media referred to human rights activists as “mongrels” and “disgusting riff-raff.”
“A club is best to beat to a pulp such mongrels that frantically bark, unable to discern what they are doing, and those utter fools who shield them,” the Pyongyang Times asserted.
Human rights groups nonetheless continued to distribute leaflets informing North Korean citizens of the crimes of their regime.
Organizations that focus on helping free the North Korean people responded to the ban with outrage.
“It is our belief that South Korea should protect, rather than target, human rights activities such as distributing anti-regime leaflets through balloons to the people of North Korea, as an act of free expression,” the North Korea Freedom Coalition stated in an open letter to President Moon. “We strongly urge you to reconsider this course of action and instead focus on advancing human rights and freedom in both South Korea and North Korea.”
The letter, distributed to global media, noted that South Korea is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a U.N. human rights legal document, and that silencing human rights groups may be a violation of its obligations.
“Both South Korea and North Korea are state parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which includes the right to impart information by any means, including across frontiers. This is a right that must be upheld,” the letter read. “Human rights activists, including defectors, are protected by the right to freedom of expression, which includes the sending of leaflets to North Korea.”
Moon’s government continued to seek dialogue with North Korea on Friday despite repeated rejections, mosty from Kim Yo-jong, to the idea of further diplomacy. In her last public statement, Kim — considered one of the most powerful people in the country after her brother — asserted that her regime had no interest in talks with the United States, which Moon has attempted in vain to rekindle for the past month.
“We have nothing to gain from a negotiation with the U.S., and we do not even harbour any expectation about it,” Kim wrote. “Serious contradiction and unsolvable discord exist between the DPRK [North Korea] and the U.S. Under such circumstances, I am of the view that the DPRK-U.S. summit talks is not needed this year and beyond, and for our part, it is not beneficial to us unless the U.S. shows decisive change in its stand.”
In that statement, Kim also bizarrely requested that the U.S. government send her DVD copies of Fourth of July celebrations for her to enjoy.
Kim’s statement in June was much more belligerent, though similarly intransigent on talks.
“Whenever [Moon] makes public appearances, he lets out childish and hope-filled dreamy rhetoric and tries to look big, just, and principled, just like an apostle of peace. It was so regretful for me to see his disgusting behavior alone. So I decided to prepare a bomb of words to let it be known to our people,” Kim Yo-jong wrote.
Moon’s administration lamented the “rude and senseless” remarks.