SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who began his career as a human rights lawyer, is coming under severe criticism for cracking down on activist groups calling for reform in North Korea.
The Moon administration has carried out a broad campaign to prevent the organizations, mostly led by North Korean defectors, from floating balloons and bottles filled with propaganda leaflets into the North.
The leaflets often criticize North Korea's human rights record or mock North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and are sometimes packaged with items of value, such as dollar bills or USB flash drives loaded with South Korean dramas.
North Korea, which forbids access to the outside world, has complained bitterly about the leaflets. Last month North Korea demolished the de facto inter-Korean embassy just north of the border and threatened unspecified military action unless Seoul stopped the launches.
The Moon government, which wants to improve ties with Pyongyang, says the crackdown is necessary to reduce military tensions. But activists say the government's response is unprecedented and may be fatal for many groups working on North Korean human rights.
Over the past several weeks, South Korean authorities have raided the offices of non-governmental organizations, filed criminal complaints against the groups, and in some cases even surveilled, briefly detained or physically blocked activists as they head to or from launch sites.
Authorities have also moved to formally outlaw the launches and threatened to imprison violators for a year.
Last week, South Korea’s Unification Ministry revoked the NGO licenses of two of the most prominent leaflet campaign groups, complicating their ability to raise money. Officials have warned they will inspect 25 more groups, raising fears their licenses too will be cancelled.
On Monday, a group of South Korean NGOs appealed to the United Nations for help against what they called an “unjustified and politically motivated” investigation. The actions, they said, risk “stifling...the entire North Korean human rights movement in South Korea.”
Many international rights groups have also condemned the crackdown with unusual bluntness.
“Rather than kowtow to Kim Jong Un’s sister, South Korea should be standing up for its own principles,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.
Last month, Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, called the leaflet launchers “human scum” and “mongrel dogs.” Within hours, South Korea began pressuring the NGOs, raising accusations Moon was stifling free speech in order to placate the North.
“I think President Moon and his people are so deep into this they don’t see they’re no longer making sense,” said Robertson. “Their actions are now violating the rights they spent their entire careers trying to build up.”
The U.N. Human Rights Office in Seoul also questioned the decision to revoke the NGO licenses, according to the Dong-A newspaper.
South Korea presses on
But South Korea is undeterred by the criticism, persisting with its crackdown even after the North inexplicably called off its campaign of leaflet-related retaliations late last month.
Moon is now expected to prioritize inter-Korean ties during the final two years of his presidency.
“The peaceful management of inter-Korean relations is the number one priority for us, and human rights would come second,” said a source close to Moon, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity to candidly describe Seoul’s view on the issue.
Left-leaning South Korean politicians have long shied away from criticizing North Korean human rights abuses. Instead, they prefer to focus on expanding ties with Pyongyang, hoping that will someday lead to a unified Korea that would respect human rights. A more aggressive approach, they argue, not only prevents reunification but also could lead to hostilities.
“We are not the United States. We cannot push against North Korea on all fronts. We have to prioritize. The issue now is peace, denuclearization, and the prevention of any kind of military conflict and escalation. Those are more urgent than human rights abuses,” said the source close to Moon.
“For us, peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula is a matter of national existence,” he added.
Both conservative and liberal South Korean governments have at times attempted to block activists from launching leaflets.
Usually, officials cite national security considerations. In 2014, North Korean border guards tried to shoot down some of the balloons, resulting in an exchange of gunfire with the South.
According to a recent poll, about 60% of South Koreans support a leaflet launch ban. That sentiment is especially common in border areas where many residents fear North Korean retaliation.
During the latest crackdown, authorities have cited varying legal justifications, including opposition from locals but also environmental regulations and non-binding diplomatic agreements.
“They have a whole bunch of excuses and they continue to pull them out and throw them against the wall and see which one is going to stick,” said Human Rights Watch's Robertson.
The launches are protected in principle under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the rights of freedom of expression, even to send information across borders, said Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea.
“Now at the same time, any government around the world has the faculty to limit this Article 19 by arguing, for example, national security or public order,” Ojea Quintana said.
The special rapporteur told VOA’s Korean Service he plans to request a meeting with South Korean officials to find more about the NGO license revocation, but stressed: “From what I know, I definitely don’t like the move.”
Despite the controversy, it’s not even clear whether Seoul’s strategy will work. According to local media, there have been at least three successful balloon launches since late June.
Two of the launches were reportedly conducted by Eric Foley, who heads Voice of the Martyrs Korea. Unlike other defector groups that launch anti-Pyongyang propaganda, Foley, an evangelical Christian, distributes Bibles along with items like rice and vitamins.
During one attempted launch in early June, Foley was stopped by police who physically blocked his path to the launch site. Since then, he and his staff have been under regular police surveillance.
“I’m puzzled at the amount of resources being applied to stop our work,” Foley told VOA. “I'm trying to launch one balloon containing seven Bibles, using my own car...and the response is to have 10 police officers stopping me for 90 minutes, taking photos of the helium tanks.”
Foley has vowed to continue launching the Bibles, which he sees as necessary to support underground Christian groups that are persecuted in North Korea.
Other NGOs have also vowed to continue launching more provocative materials.
“By making this a bigger thing,” Robertson said, “I think the South Koreans have now set themselves up for a game of perpetual cat and mouse with these North Korean defector organizations, who have the wherewithal and have the determination to continue doing this.”