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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
The South Korean government has asked activist groups to refrain from using balloons to send anti-regime leaflets into North Korea, a Ministry of Unification (MOU) official told media on Tuesday.
The move follows the release of the Panmunjom Declaration on Friday, which saw, among other things, the two Koreas agree to cease “broadcasting through loudspeakers and distribution of leaflets.”
Asking for the cooperation of local activists, the MOU official said the move would help ease military tensions on the peninsula.
“Considering the intent of the agreement, we hope that private organizations will also actively cooperate in halting the distribution of leaflets toward North Korea,” the official, who asked to remain anonymous, said.
“We ask for the broad cooperation of private organizations as the suspension of spreading the leaflets is crucial not only to alleviate military tensions but also to protect the safety of residents in the border area and prevent social conflicts,” they added.
The South Korean government reportedly plans to “strengthen its communication with private organizations and deal with the issue in conjunction with related ministries.”
Friday saw Seoul and Pyongyang agree to “completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air and sea.”
That agreement bound the two Koreas to stop, as of Tuesday, “all hostile acts and eliminating their means, including broadcasting through loudspeakers and distribution of leaflets” near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL).
North Korean defector and activist Park Sang-hak, who leads Fighters for Free North Korea (FFNK) and frequently sends anti-regime leaflets to the North, however, told NK News his organization would ignore the government’s request.
“This is the matter of freedom of expression which is people’s basic right in a free democratic country,” Park said on Monday evening, adding that he was yet to hear from Seoul on the matter.
“Can the Ministry of Unification take away fundamental rights? If they change the Constitution that stipulates that there is no freedom of telling the truth… then we won’t be able to continue our activities.”
Park and his colleagues plan to send bottles carrying USB sticks and rice into the North on Tuesday and to fly anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border on Saturday.
The location of the launch, he said, will be decided later depending on the direction of the wind.
Pyongyang has in the past strongly condemned the sending of anti-regime leaflets across the inter-Korean border.
The Korean People’s Army (KPA) in March 2015 threatened to open fire on balloons carrying the leaflets, warning South Koreans living in the vicinity of the MDL to evacuate in advance.
North and South Korea exchanged gunfire across the heavily fortified border in October 2014, after the DPRK military fired around 10 shots at balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets.
Those tensions led residents of the border area to strongly oppose the sending of the balloons – and later attempts to fly leaflets North led to clashes between activists and locals.
May last year saw the South Korean military fire 90 rounds of K3 machine-gun fire at multiple propaganda balloons crossing the MDL.
The Park Geun-hye administration previously said that was “no legal basis for the government to forcibly restrict the spread of leaflets” but that it also had a responsibility to protect the public from “North Korean threats.”
Under Park local police several times attempted to stop activist groups from flying the balloons.
The MOU official on Tuesday, too, suggested law enforcement could in some circumstances be mobilized to stop activist groups who went ahead with the distribution of the leaflets.
“The police can intervene in the areas which can be the threat to the safety of local residents and cause social conflict based on the Act on the Performance of Duties by Police Officer,” the official said.
Tuesday’s statement by the unification ministry comes a day after the Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced plans to remove propaganda loudspeakers along the inter-Korean border – another follow-up measure to the Panmunjom Declaration.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Rene Walter’s Flickr