Interview: 'Don't Give North Korea Veto Power Over the Free Flow of Information'
2021-05-14 -- A law against sending leaflets into North Korea has been in effect in South Korea since March. On May 6, South Korean police searched the office of Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector who had sent leaflets into North Korea. Police then summoned him for questioning four days later. On May 12, RFA Korean Service reporter Albert Hong discussed Park's case with U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, co-chair of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
RFA: Regarding the anti-Pyongyang leaflet ban, there is a lot of controversy in South Korea now, with people saying they feel that North Korean residents living near the DMZ deserve to know the truth about conditions in their country and about life in the South. What do you think about this?
Chris Smith: Well first of all, the North Korean government, especially in its schools, defames and smears South Korea and the United States, and that's what people learn there every single day. Pyongyang relies on vicious lies about the South Koreans, about who they are, and about their government and about their economy. And so this leafletting isn't anti-Pyongyang, it's simply telling the truth about what's going on in South Koreaâ€”that it's not the way the propagandists in North Korea envision it. As a matter of fact, according to our U.S. State Department, in North Korea you can't even have a radio that can tune into broadcasts from abroad. That's a punishable offense.
I think [South Korea's] President Moon Jae-in needs to stand up for freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and tell his people, "Yes, we need to get this information to the people of North Korea." The North Koreans try to jam foreign broadcasts, and they are usually pretty successful in doing that. Again, what's the end game? It's so they can tell their lies and completely obliterate the truth. So this is all about truth, telling the truth.
I remember when I was growing up as a little kid that we were very focused on European dictatorships, and especially Russian dictatorship in the Soviet Union. There was a very famous saying that 'The Iron Curtain isn't soundproof.' In other words, because of Radio Free Europe and other freedom broadcasts, the truth could be told to the people who were suffering the cruelty of a dictatorship. I can't tell you how many people who have been to prison camps all over the world, including the Soviet Union, have told me that somehow the truth gets through when there's a determined effort to do that. Sending in balloons with 500,000 leaflets attached to them telling this story is such a positive thing.
RFA: Do you think that President Moon's use of this law to punish people sending leaflets into North Korea conflicts with the values of human rights that the United States upholds?
[South Korea's anti-leafletting law] is in conflict with universally recognized human rights and with the covenants both our countries have acceded toâ€”the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for instance, and others. And it seems to me that the freely elected president and parliament of South Korea have an obligation, a moral obligation, to at least tell the truth and not allow a dictatorship to have veto power over the free flow of information. Freedom broadcasts need to be encouraged, not discouraged, and leafletting balloons are just another way of trying to get honesty and the truth to a people.
RFA: You've already held a hearing about this issue last month. Are you planning on additional hearings regarding this law or on the North Korean human rights issue in the future?
Chris Smith: Absolutely, yes to both. I've chaired seven hearings so far devoted specifically to North Korean human rights abuses. We're also getting ready to reintroduce the North Korean Human Rights Act, because it expires at the end of this fiscal year. And I do plan to have additional hearings based on the situation on the ground.
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