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South Korea Bans Floating Leaflets By Balloon To North Korea

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn our attention now to South Korea. The government there recently passed a law making it illegal to send propaganda materials across the border into North Korea. It's all part of an effort to reduce tensions between the two countries, but as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, critics say it's restricting free speech.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Defector Kim Yong-hwa is in a bind. He's got some packages, which the new law prohibits him from delivering.

KIM YONG-HWA: (Through interpreter) We have Bibles, radios and rice all ready to send to North Korea right now.

KUHN: Mr. Kim has just brought us over to a part of his office, and there are big plastic containers on the floor here. And in them are little transistor radios and Bibles no bigger than a pack of cigarettes, all wrapped in plastic and ready to be floated into North Korea. Kim, who runs a support group for defectors, says the new law makes him feel that South Korea is no longer a free democracy.

KIM: (Through interpreter) Under Kim Jong Un's dictatorship, if he orders someone to die, then that person is executed. When President Moon Jae-in orders our work blocked, it becomes a crime punishable by up to three years in jail or $27,000 in fines. How are these two dictatorships different?

KUHN: Lawmaker Song Young-gil disagrees. He sponsored the bill banning the sending of printed materials, money or other items of value into the North, and he says freedom of speech is well protected in the South.

SONG YOUNG-GIL: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "Defectors can call President Moon Jae-in a Commie in downtown Seoul and not get arrested," he argues. "Would anyone survive in North Korea if they call Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Un names in downtown Pyongyang?"

Song points out that at a 2018 summit, President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un agreed that both sides would stop hostile acts, including propaganda leafleting, and he says that pledge must be kept if the two sides are ever to reach a denuclearization deal.

Defector Kim Yong-hwa approves of the inter-Korean diplomacy but not the South's restrictions.

KIM: (Through interpreter) It's not like we're murderers or criminals. We're just humans trying to save other humans.

KUHN: Kim is also angry because he feels Seoul seems to be taking orders from Pyongyang.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

KUHN: North Koreans held rallies this summer as part of a campaign led by Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong. She threatened military action to punish the South for the leaflets and ordered the demolition of an inter-Korean liaison office in the North in June.

KIM: (Through interpreter) Honestly, I think the South Koreans are so subservient. They have suffered because of North Korean leaders since the days of the Korean War. The North Korean leaders' words still have huge power.

KUHN: Barred from floating his Bibles, rice and radios from South Korea, Kim is now weighing other options, including having them smuggled across North Korea's northern border from China.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "PAUSED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.