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South Korea: Scrap Bill Shielding North Korean Government

Law Would Block South Koreans from Sending Materials North

People watch a news program showing an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

(New York) – The South Korean National Assembly should reject a proposed law that would criminalize sending leaflets, information, money, and other items to North Korea, Human Rights Watch said today. If enacted, the law would violate South Koreans’ rights to freedom of expression and would make engaging in humanitarianism and human rights activism a criminal offense. 

On December 2, 2020, a committee of the South Korean National Assembly passed an amendment that would make it a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to send leaflets or other materials into North Korea without the government’s permission, including “promotional pamphlets,” “printed hand-outs,” and “auxiliary storage devices” (such as USBs, SD cards, and disks), as well as “money or other monetary benefits.” The overbroad language could be interpreted to include any items of value at all, and potentially, in the North Korean context, food or medicine.

“The South Korean government seems more interested in keeping North Korea’s Kim Jong Un happy than letting its own citizens exercise their basic rights on behalf of their northern neighbors,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “The proposed law does a great disservice to the people of both South Korea and North Korea, and the National Assembly should vote against it.”

The bill will be put to vote at the National Assembly on December 9 and, if passed, become law if signed by President Moon Jae-in.

Earlier in 2020, the South Korean government used regulatory authority to target groups that send balloons with leaflets or large water bottles filled with rice to North Korea. The crackdowns began immediately after public demands in June by Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister and a high-ranking party official, that South Korea should stop all such activities. The current bill to criminalize these activities was introduced days later.

Many North Korean escapees and South Korean groups routinely send money to relatives and other at-risk people in North Korea, as well as USB and SD cards with digital content containing documentaries or other presentations on life outside North Korea, classes in math or economics, information on current affairs, news, and history. They also send seeds, food, secondhand clothes, and medicine. It is unclear whether the law would only apply to informational items and money, or also include other items of value.

The proposed law is nearing passage while the South Korean government has increasingly engaged in intimidation of local human rights groups working on North Korea, apparently to help diplomatic efforts related to weapons proliferation.   

“The South Korean government should abandon its misguided strategy of trying to win favor with Kim Jong Un by cracking down on its own citizens,” Sifton said. “Promoting human rights is not at odds with effective foreign policy.”

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