2.6 million South Koreans live near North Korea in cities and counties adjacent to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) or the Northern Limit Line (NLL) on the sea. I represent one of those communities. I was born, raised and elected to the National Assembly in the City of Paju, the gateway to Panmunjeom. As a child, I saw more tanks and military trucks than passenger vehicles in my town on the road with narrowly-spaced anti-tank barricades. I grew up listening to both anti-Seoul and anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts blasting from loudspeakers, set up on each side of the DMZ. Today, Paju is a prosperous suburb of Seoul: my city has over 460,000 residents—more than Long Beach, California—and is a home to high tech industry such as LG Display as well as a large portion of South Korea’s book publishing industry. But because of its proximity to the DMZ, the fear of an armed conflict with North Korea has always weighed on the minds of its residents. This is why I co-sponsored an amendment to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act that curbs the attempts to send anti-North Korean propaganda across the DMZ and the NLL: to provide my constituents with a peace of mind.
I was stunned by a series of recent American criticism of a South Korean law that bans the sending of propaganda leaflets to the North in the border area. Several Democrats expressed their concern that the law will severely restrict the freedom of expression of South Korean citizens and undercut the flow of information to the North. Another congressman criticized the ban, claiming that it is a threat to South Korean people’s civil and political rights and pledged to convene the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on this issue. These critiques simply do not reflect the reality on the ground and the lived experience of the 2.6 million South Korean citizens along the DMZ and the NLL. Moreover, these complaints do not seem to consider at all the opinion of the millions of people whose lives and safety are directly impacted by the balloon leaflet launches. Further, they display a lack of knowledge on the democratic process of the Republic of Korea, as well as on how the law will be implemented.
The possibility of balloon launches leading to an armed conflict is a very real one. In October 2014, South Korean civic organizations floated balloons containing leaflets into the North near the DMZ, and North Korea attempted to shoot them down with the ZPU-4 anti-aircraft gun. Its shells fell in the South Korean border town of Yeoncheon, neighboring Paju. This represents the most recent occasion in which North Korean shells landed in South Korean territory. The 2014 skirmish then led to North Korea’s 2015 artillery attack on the loudspeakers set up in Yeoncheon, leading to mass evacuation to underground shelters where some residents had to hide for up to five days.
The balloon launches disrupt the lives of South Koreans in other ways. In April 2016, three South Korean soldiers patrolling along the barbed wire fences in Paju suffered burns as a balloon containing leaflets exploded when they tried to collect it. Fishermen of Seokmo Island, one of the fishing communities along the border off the coast of Incheon, say that their fishing nets are full of plastic bottles for propaganda leaflets and that annual costs of collecting those bottles amounted to 30-40 million Korean won (30-40k USD)—a significant dent in their income. Paju boasts beautiful nature that offers a getaway for residents in the city, but the rise in tensions in the Korean peninsula has led to a drop in tourism revenues, seriously damaging the local economy. The balloon launches became so disruptive that some of the residents of my district even organized volunteer committees to prevent balloon launches near the DMZ area by force, straining the resources of the law enforcement.
This is the context in which I proposed the ban on the leaflet launching. Of course, freedom of expression and promotion of human rights in North Korea are important issues. But so are the peace, safety, and livelihoods of millions of South Koreans who live along the DMZ and the NLL. When there are competing interests of good intentions, the function of a democracy is to mediate those interests in a way that ensures the will of the people prevail while avoiding any undue infringement on fundamental rights. This is precisely what happened with the amendment to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act.
Some have argued that my bill represents the Moon Jae-in administration’s attempt to appease North Korea. This criticism belies ignorance on how the legislative process works in South Korea. Under the constitution of the Republic of Korea, the executive branch may directly propose laws to the legislative branch, and it frequently does so. But the Moon administration did not propose the leaflet bill—I did, along with my co-sponsor, Assembly Member Song Young-gil whose district in Incheon is also near North Korea. Assembly Member Song and I proposed the bill because we were concerned about our constituents. In other words, the bill represents the will of the DMZ area residents who elected me, not an initiative of the Moon administration. Our bill became a law through the democratic process, as it underwent the deliberative process in the National Assembly and was passed handily.
Further, we ensured our bill did not unduly restrict the fundamental rights of freedom of speech. The bill is on solid constitutional basis, as the Supreme Court of the Republic of Korea previously ruled in 2016 that the government may regulate the leaflet sending activities near the DMZ in the interest of public safety and national security. We have ensured that our bill is within the scope of that Supreme Court decision, by explicitly stating that the leaflet launching is prohibited only to the extent that it threatens life and safety of other citizens or poses a danger to military security.
It is also doubtful whether the balloon launches near the DMZ were an effective means of sending information into North Korea. According to an estimation by Republic of Korea military intelligence that monitors activities in the DMZ area, 60 percent of the balloons do not reach North Korea; the remaining 40 percent do not travel forty miles past the DMZ. Even if the balloons do reach the North Korean people, they are more likely to report them to the authorities for fear of punishment. Further, the contents of the leaflets are often not designed to engage and persuade the North Korean people but to simply troll. Some leaflets, for example, include a nude porno composite of a North Korean leader’s wife; it is difficult to imagine what kind of information such leaflets are attempting to convey, or how they will inspire North Koreans to seek freedom.
Indeed, there is a better way to promote the flow of information into North Korea: opening up the North Korean regime and encouraging exchanges with the outside world. The first round of inter-Korean summits in the 2000s led to a massive number of South Koreans visiting the North regularly. Nearly two million South Koreans visited Mt. Geumgang in North Korea between 1998 and 2008. At one point, more than ten thousand South Korean workers commuted daily across the DMZ to Kaesong Industrial Complex, where they constantly interacted with thousands of North Korean workers. The flow of information through these exchanges was incomparably greater than balloon launches near the DMZ.
Ultimately, this connects to the historic task of ending hostilities and achieving denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula. The military tension along the DMZ, the anxiety of the Paju residents who are concerned for their lives and safety, and the desire to send leaflets across the DMZ, all stem from the same fundamental cause: the continuing hostility between the two Koreas. The government of the Republic of Korea has endeavored to address this fundamental cause, in a significant part by entering into the Basic Agreement in 1992 with North Korea premised on non-aggression, reconciliation and cooperation. My bill is consistent with the Basic Agreement, under which both Koreas pledged not to engage in propaganda or psychological warfare. If the inter-Korean relations improve, the flow of information from South Korea to North Korea will naturally increase. Should the hostilities end on the Korean Peninsula, there would be no need to send leaflets to North Korea via balloon launches, and the law prohibiting balloon launches would fade as a relic of history.
Constructive criticism is a cornerstone of democracy, and I welcome it from anywhere, including from our ally the United States. But a criticism cannot be constructive if it is detached from reality. The desire to protect freedom of speech and promote the flow of information to North Korea is laudable, but the criticism from U.S. lawmakers makes no reference to the reality on the ground that affects 2.6 million South Koreans, who voted to enact the amendment to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act through democratic procedures. As their elected representative, I underwent the process of attempting to serve the interest of my constituents without unduly infringing fundamental freedom. I would invite my counterparts in the United States to do the same.
Park Jeung is a Member of the National Assembly, Paju B District, Gyeonggi-do Province, Republic of Korea.