South Korea has revoked the licences of two organisations that regularly fly balloons across the border into North Korea with propaganda leaflets for “seriously hindering the unification policy of the government”.
The registration licences of Fighters for a Free North Korea and for the Kuensaem education centre have been revoked, the Ministry of Unification said on Friday in Seoul.
The leaflets infuriated the North and undermined the South’s efforts to engage with its isolated neighbour, it added.
The move is likely to trigger debate over potential infringements on freedom of expression in the democratic South.
The leaflets – usually attached to hot air balloons or floated in bottles – criticise North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over human-rights abuses and his nuclear ambitions.
They also raised tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and “put the safety and lives” of Koreans living in border towns “in danger”, the ministry added.
Revoking the groups’ operational permits does not render them illegal, but will make it harder for them to raise money and deny them access to benefits for registered organisations.
Park Sang-hak, leader of one of the groups, told AFP news agency the South Korean government had “deprived us of the most important value of democracy, which is freedom”.
Both Koreas used to regularly send leaflets to the other side but agreed to stop such propaganda activities – including loudspeaker broadcasts along the frontier – in the Panmunjom Declaration signed by Kim and the South’s President Moon Jae-in at their first summit in 2018.
Last month, Pyongyang issued a series of vitriolic condemnations of South Korea over the leaflets, which defectors based in the South continued to send despite the agreement.
It upped the pressure by blowing up an inter-Korean liaison office on its side of the border and threatening military measures.
Seoul officials previously banned leaflet activities in border areas and filed a police complaint against the groups.
“Instead of proposing a blanket ban on sending balloons with messages and materials to the North, President Moon should publicly demand that North Korea respect freedom of expression and stop censoring what North Koreans can see,” Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson, said last month.
Inter-Korean relations have been in deep freeze following the collapse of a summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Vietnam last year over what the nuclear-armed North would be willing to give up in exchange for a loosening of sanctions.