North Korean Defector Faces $27K Fine For Sending Leaflets Into Country By Balloon

A North Korean defector said Friday he sent 500,000 propaganda leaflets by balloon from South Korea into his former country, allegedly defying a new law that could result in a $27,040 fine or up to three years in prison, the Associated Press reported.

Park Sang-hak, a South Korean activist, said he and his organization sent 10 balloons that carried leaflets criticizing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his government, and 5,000 $1 bills, from an area near the border. If law enforcement pursues Park under the new South Korean law that prohibits leafleting to North Korea, it would be the first known violation.

"Though [authorities] can handcuff and put me to a prison cell, they cannot stop [my leafleting] with whatever threats or violence as long as the North Korean people waits for the letters of freedom, truth and hopes," said Park, according to AP.

The law was a subject of debate this month in the U.S. during a video conference hearing with lawmakers in which opponents of the legislation called it a violation of democratic freedoms.

"What I really think is extremely alarming is a retreat by the South Korean government from its long-standing commitment to human rights vis-à-vis North Korea and China, ostensibly in the cause of fostering better relations or achieving nuclear nonproliferation," Representative Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said.

U.S. lawmakers in support of the law argued that the leafleting campaigns are aggressive and provocative toward North Korea and that it could put South Koreans living near the border at risk.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

North Korean Defector
A North Korean defector, now living in South Korea, prepares to release balloons carrying propaganda leaflets denouncing recent North Korea's nuclear test, near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on September 15, 2016, in Paju, South Korea. The leaflets also denounce the North Korean government for human rights abuses. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The law that took effect last month has invited criticism South Korea is sacrificing freedom of expression to improve ties with rival North Korea.

Front-line police stations in Gyeonggi and Gangwon provinces said they couldn't immediately confirm if Park sent balloons from their areas, which Park said he used in two launches this week.

Cha Duck Chul, a deputy spokesman at Seoul's Unification Ministry, said the government would handle the case in line with the objective of the law, though police and military authorities were still working to confirm Park's statement.

He would not disclose the exact locations he launched his balloons in the two border provinces, citing worries police would stop future attempts.

Park, who is known for years of leafleting campaigns, called the anti-leafleting legislation "the worst law" that "sides with cruel human rights abuser Kim Jong Un and covers the eyes and ears of the North Korean people that have become the modern-day slaves of the Kim dynasty."

Video released by Park showed him releasing a balloon with leaflets toward a dark sky. He is seen standing with a sign that partly reads, "The world condemns Kim Jong Un who is crazy for nuclear and rocket provocations."

In Parliament, lawmakers supporting President Moon Jae-in's engagement policy on North Korea hold a three-fifths supermajority. It went into effect in late March.

South Korea has previously banned such activities only during sensitive times.

In 2014, North Korea fired at propaganda balloons flying toward its territory and South Korea returned fire. There were no casualties.

During their summit in 2018, Moon and Kim agreed to halt Cold War-style psychological warfare and reduce animosities.

Kim's powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, last year furiously demanded South Korea ban the leafleting and called North Korean defectors involved in it "human scum" and "mongrel dogs."

Despite the law, ties between the Koreas remain strained amid a standstill in broader nuclear diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington. North Korea has made a series of derisive statements against Seoul, including Kim Yo Jong calling Moon "a parrot raised by America" after he criticized the North's recent missile launches.

South Korean Propaganda Leaflets
In this April 15, 2011, file photo, Park Sang-hak (center), a refugee from the North, and South Korean conservative activists prepare to release balloons bearing leaflets during an anti-North Korea rally at the Imjingak Pavilion near the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea. Lee Jin-man/AP Photo