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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
The South Korean police on Monday evening prohibited an activist group from launching balloons carrying Bibles into North Korea, citing a previous exchange of gunfire between the two Koreas in the area.
Activists from the Voice of the Martyrs NGO attempted to release the balloons from Yeoncheon County, the site of an exchange of gunfire in October 2014 provoked by a launch of anti-Pyongyang leaflets.
Monday saw police cite a 2016 judgment by the South Korean Supreme Court prohibiting balloon launches from the whole Yeoncheon County area, according to video provided by the NGO to NK News.
Voice of the Martyrs, however, insists that this is the first time they have been prevented from using the area to launch balloons into the North.
“For 12 years we have had a good and professional relationship with the Yeoncheon police,” co-founder of the Voice of the Martyrs Pastor Eric Foley told NK News. “This is the first time they have responded in this way.”
“That location is one of several locations we have used for launching many times for many years, including many launches since 2014.”
The ROK Supreme Court previously cited the 2014 incident as evidence that there was a “causality between the distribution of anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets and the North’s provocative acts which caused imminent danger to the life and body of residents near the cease-fire line.”
The court ruled that the South Korean state could “restrain the act of spreading anti-North leaflet in pursuance of Article 5 section 1 of the Act on the Performance of Duties by Police Officers and Article 761 section 2 of the civil law which defines the self-defense and emergency evacuation.”
Despite the court accepting that all citizens were guaranteed freedom of expression under the ROK Constitution, it also ruled that freedom of expression “is not unlimited and the state can restrict it when necessary for the assurance of national security, order maintenance, or public welfare.”
Footage of the incident provided to NK News by Voice of the Martyrs
Monday saw a police officer at the intelligence department tell the activists the authorities “have prohibited all activities based on this precedent.”
“The court made the judgment there is the specific danger cause by sending balloons in the region,” the police officer tells Foley in the video.
The police officers said other activist groups had also been turned away, adding that it would not be fair if the Voice of the Martyrs were allowed to send balloons.
“Our stance is that we will advise you not to [send balloons] at first, but we will restrain you if you go ahead with it,” the police officer said.
Although the police claimed that they have banned civic groups from flying balloons carrying anti-regime leaflets in Yeoncheon County after the exchange of gunfire, its argument runs counter to statistics provided the Korean National Police Agency (KNPA).
Lawmaker Kim Young-jin from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea in October 2017 released public data showing that activist groups had launched balloons toward the North from Yeoncheon County 42 times in 2015 and 2016 out of a total of 118 cases.
Between January and August last year, 16 out of 45 balloon launches came from the region.
Unlike many activist groups, Voice of the Martyrs does not use the balloons to send leaflets, instead sending the Bibles officially published by the North Korean government.
In an op-ed for NK News last month, Pastor Foley wrote that his NGO had sent 40,000 of these Bibles annually for over a decade.
“We use the version of the Bible published by the North Korean government, which the North Korean government insists can be read legally by all North Koreans under the DPRK constitution,” he wrote.
The leaders of the two Koreas in April agreed to cease “all hostile acts and eliminating their means, including broadcasting through loudspeakers and distribution of leaflets” on May 1 as part of the Panmunjom Declaration.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Unification (MOU) in May issued a statement claiming the distribution of flyers “directly violates the spirit of agreement of the Panmunjom Declaration.”
Seoul also said the launches “should be suspended to protect the safety of residents living on the borders and to prevent social conflict,” and warned that it would mobilize police to stop them.
Monday also saw a police officer tell activists that he was “politely making a request” not to send balloons North, citing the MOU statement.
“Under the circumstance that the inter-Korean relations have improved, the Ministry of Unification has requested us to restrain you…,” he told Foley.
The unification ministry on Tuesday reiterated its opposition to the launches.
“Distributing leaflets, USBs, among others through balloons is in violation of the agreement of the spirit of [Panmunjom Declaration],” an official at the ministry told NK News.
“It’s desirable to immediately stop such behavior in accordance with the Panmunjom Declaration to ease military tensions in the areas along the Military Demarcation Line.”
But Foley insisted that the interruption was connected to the change in the situation on the Korean peninsula and that there was “no specific law directly banning people from sending balloons.”
“But as you know, this is truly a political matter rather than a legal thing. Even in the Park regime, police sometimes blocked them from sending balloons when they were doing talks with North Korea,” he told NK News.
Yeoncheon Police Station declined to provide comment.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: The Voice of the Martyrs