South Korea court strikes down ban on anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets

By Hyunsu Yim

SEOUL (Reuters) -South Korea’s constitutional court ruled on Tuesday the ban on sending propaganda leaflets to North Korea was unconstitutional, striking down a law passed in 2020 by the liberal party of then President Moon Jae-in, who sought better ties with Pyongyang.

The law, which subjects violators to up to three years in prison or 30 million won ($22,235) in fines, had come under intense criticism from rights activists and conservative lawmakers as a violation of free speech rights.

The Unification Ministry which handles inter-Korean affairs welcomed the ruling and said the law had violated North Korean residents’ right to know.

The seven-to-two ruling found that a clause in the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act banning the distribution of leaflets excessively limited freedom of speech, the Court said in a summary of the ruling.

The clause characterized the sending of leaflets as a potential cause of danger and serious harm to South Korean citizens, especially those who live near the border in the event North Korea retaliated by force.

The court’s decision to nullify the law takes effect immediately.

Groups run by North Korean defectors and other campaigners had sent anti-Pyongyang leaflets, alongside food and USB sticks containing South Korean news and dramas, into the North, usually by balloons or in bottles on border rivers.

The leaflets were often printed on small plastic bags, which are known to be coveted by North Koreans, with messages harshly critical of the North Korean leadership and news and information about the democratic South.

North Korea reacted angrily to the practice and denounced it as an obstacle to better relations between the two Koreas. Some residents of border towns also criticized the action as stoking tension and putting their safety at risk.

($1 = 1,349.2000 won)

(Reporting by Hyunsu Yim; Editing by Jack Kim, Christian Schmollinger and Ros Russell)