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N Korea issues military threats after Seoul overturns leaflet ban

North Korea's Kim Jong Un. (KCNA/Xinhua via Zuma Press/TNS)
November 14, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korea has issued military threats in response to South Korea’s ruling that the law barring the dissemination of anti-Pyongyang leaflets into the North was unconstitutional. It’s the first time Pyongyang has made threats since Seoul’s decision.

South Korea’s Constitutional Court declared the law unconstitutional in September, with seven out of its nine judges finding that the law restricted the nation’s constitutional value of free speech. The verdict led to the law’s immediate annulment. 

“The decision that the ‘anti-leaflet law’ is unconstitutional in the puppet state is being enforced and the process of abolishing the related guidelines is in full swing,” the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on Wednesday, as Pyongyang took a jab at South Korea. 

“It is the position of the enraged revolutionary armed forces of our country that we must go beyond the conventional response and pour down with the fire shower of punishment not only on their leafleting bases but also on their puppet castles.”

Calling leafleting a “sophisticated form of psychological warfare used by belligerents to neutralize the other side” and a “de facto pre-emptive strike that precedes the start of war,” KCNA said: “there is no guarantee that a military conflict like the one that occurred in Europe and the Middle East will not occur on the Korean Peninsula when a hostile psychological warfare that viciously denigrates the existence and development of our country is carried out on our borders.”

The report also warned “the traitors [South Korea]” of consequences by attempting to draw a parallel to how “anti-DPRK leaflets sent by ‘defectors’ scum resulted in an exchange of fire in 2014 and the complete destruction of the North-South Joint Liaison Office in 2020,” using North Korea’s formal name. 

“Until now, we’ve been able to put up with it because there was the anti-leaflet law, albeit a weak one.”

In March 2021, South Korea enacted legislation criminalizing the act of sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across its borders. Violators would be subject to imprisonment for a maximum of three years or a fine of 30 million won (US$22,000).

Passed by the South Korean parliament during the administration of the progressive president Moon Jae-in, the contentious legislation argued that leaflet distribution to the North could provoke hostility and endanger the safety of border town residents in the South.

But the criminalization sparked a backlash from both international and domestic human rights organizations and media outlets. South Korean conservatives and international media opined that sending leaflets was a matter of free speech and a law restricting such an activity was unconstitutional. Dozens of human rights organizations filed a constitutional complaint concerning the prohibition, and sought an injunction against the newly enacted law.

Conservative activists and North Korean defector organizations in South Korea have periodically launched leaflet-laden balloons across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which separates the peninsula, denouncing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. This has incited the ire of Pyongyang.

A strict information cordon is maintained by the regime in an effort to prevent the spread of information it claims could corrupt North Koreans.

Defectors and conservative activists said the purpose of their endeavors is to give North Korean citizens access to information that contradicts the regime’s narrative, encompassing critiques of Kim, his family, and the policies implemented by the ruling Workers’ Party.