South Korean activist floats leaflets to North amid tensions

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A South Korean group launched hundreds of thousands of leaflets by balloon across the border into North Korea overnight, an activist said Tuesday, despite repeated warnings from the North that it will retaliate against such actions.

Activist Park Sang-hak said his organization floated 20 huge balloons carrying 500,000 leaflets, 2,000 one-dollar bills and small books on North Korea from the border town of Paju on Monday night.

Park, a former North Korean who fled to South Korea, said in a statement that the leafleting is “a struggle for justice for the sake of liberation” of North Koreans.

The move is certain to intensify already high tensions between the Koreas. North Korea recently abruptly raised its rhetoric against South Korean civilian leafleting, destroying an empty, Seoul-built liaison office on its territory and pushing to resume its psychological warfare against the South.

Local officials in South Korea said they are looking into Park’s account and may ask police to investigate it as a potential safety threat to front-line residents. Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, issued a separate statement expressing “deep regret” over Park’s attempt to send leaflets.

Calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “an evil” and his rule “barbarism,” Park said he will keep sending anti-Kim leaflets.

“Though North Korean residents have become modern-day slaves with no basic rights, don’t they have the right to know the truth?” he said.

South Korean officials have vowed to ban leafleting and said they will press charges against Park and other anti-North Korea activists for allegedly raising animosities and potentially endangering border residents. In 2014, North Korean troops opened fire at propaganda balloons flying toward their territory, triggering an exchange of fire that caused no known casualties.

Park accused South Korea’s liberal government of sympathizing with North Korea and caving in to its threats. Park’s brother, also an activist, last week canceled plans to release bottles filled with dried rice and face masks from a front-line island.

Gyeonggi province, which governs Paju, earlier issued an administrative order prohibiting activists from entering certain border areas including Paju to fly leaflets to the North.

If Park’s leafleting is confirmed, Gyeonggi official Kim Min-yeong said the province will demand police investigate him. The penalty for violations is a year in prison and up to a 10 million won ($8,200) fine.

The provincial office said in a statement Tuesday it had separately requested police investigate four activists’ groups, including Park’s, for alleged fraud, diversion of official funds and other charges. It said the four groups have been accused of exploiting leafleting as way to collect donations as a money-making business, rather than a human rights movement.

North Korea does not tolerate criticism of its ruling family, who enjoy a strong personality cult built by North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, whose military’s surprise invasion of South Korea in June 1950 triggered a devastating three-year war.

Park previously said he would push to drop a million leaflets over the border around Thursday, the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. A large banner that Park said was flown to North Korea with the leaflets Monday shows an image of Kim Il Sung and accuses him of “the slaughter of (the Korean) people” and urges North Koreans to rise up against the Kim family’s rule, according to photos distributed by Park.

At least one of the banners and a balloon with leaflets were found to have landed in Hongcheon, a South Korean town southeast of Paju, not in North Korea, Yonhap news agency reported. Hongcheon police said they couldn’t immediately confirm the report.

In recent weeks, North Korea has unleashed insults against leafleting activists like Park, describing them as “human scum” and “mongrel dogs.” It said it would also take a series of steps to nullify 2018 tension-reduction deals with South Korea. On Monday, North Korea’s state media said it had manufactured 12 million propaganda leaflets to be floated toward South Korea in what it said would be the largest-ever anti-Seoul leafleting campaign.

Experts say North Korea is likely using the South Korean civilian leafleting as a chance to boost its internal unity and apply more pressure on Seoul and Washington amid stalled nuclear talks.

While Seoul has sometimes sent police to block activists from leafleting during sensitive times, it had previously resisted North Korea’s calls for a ban, saying the activists were exercising their freedom of speech.

Seoul’s recent moves against leafleting have drawn criticism that the government is sacrificing democratic principles to keep alive its push for inter-Korean engagement.