In a nondescript office on the outskirts of Seoul, a man I will call Kang copies South Korean television dramas and documentaries onto USB drives. In Seoul, this content is standard fare. Where it is headed, however, such information is rare—and dangerous. When the drives are ready, they will be smuggled into North Korea, where the programs they contain are banned by the totalitarian regime in Pyongyang, and anyone who possesses or watches them risks high fines, imprisonment, or even execution for the crime of trying to learn about the outside world.
Kang fled North Korea in 2011 and knows firsthand the power of such information. “My trust in the regime unraveled after secretly listening to foreign radio programs,” he told me. “Now that I live in a free country, it’s my duty to share the world’s information with my countrymen, whose lives are based on lies.”
Kang is hardly alone. Thousands of South Korean activists now support and participate in efforts to supply North Koreans with information delivered via USB drives, pirate broadcasts, and even leaflets delivered over the border by drones and balloons. Thanks to these efforts, which I have written about previously in Foreign Affairs, more North Koreans than ever before now perceive the gap between reality and the propaganda that the regime of Kim Jong Un uses to deceive them and maintain its grip on power. The last thing Kim wants is an informed citizenry that can question his repressive system. So the regime considers Kang and others like him to be criminals.
And that is how the government in South Korea now classifies them, too. Last week, the ruling party of South Korean President Moon Jae-in passed a law in South Korea’s parliament that bans the distribution of information and media to North Koreans through a wide and vaguely defined range of means, including leaflets and USB drives. The bill establishes a maximum penalty for violators of three years in prison or a fine of up to 30 million won (around $27,000). Its passage is meant to mollify the Kim regime, which has furiously denounced the smuggling of information from South Korea.
The legislation is the latest step in Moon’s quest to secure peace on the Korean Peninsula through reconciliation with Pyongyang. Whatever the merits of that goal, Moon’s agenda has led to the suppression of many activities promoting North Korean human rights. In its desperation to placate Kim, Moon’s government has turned its back on basic principles of liberal democracy, and the new law represents a new low. Seoul is now directly aiding and abetting Pyongyang’s repression. The South Korean government should be supporting efforts to supply information to North Koreans, not criminalizing them.
Providing access to information for North Koreans is an effective, low-cost strategy to create the conditions for positive change from within. Moon, born to North Korean refugees and a trained human rights lawyer, surely understands this as well as anyone. As he related in a 2017 interview, his “parents fled from North Korea during the Korean War because they despised the North Korean communist regime. They fled to seek freedom.” In the 1970s, prior to South Korea’s own democratization, Moon was himself jailed for participating in pro-democracy protests. As of last week, however, he now presides over a government that will imprison citizens for exercising their own rights to free speech.
Banning such activities will not permanently ease cross-border tensions. North Korea has a long history of finding excuses to stir up trouble. Acquiescing to Pyongyang’s demands by imposing limits on the basic rights of South Koreans is not a sustainable strategy.
Moon’s party believes that its approach will be welcomed in Washington. Prior to the law’s passage, Song Young-gil, the chair of the foreign affairs and unification committee in the South Korean parliament, described the legislation as “timely,” because Seoul is “hoping to see breakthroughs in negotiations between the North and the United States” under the incoming Biden administration. But U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has a strong record of promoting human rights, and it is doubtful that his administration will embrace the new legislation. One figure reportedly under consideration for a role in his administration is Samantha Power. As U.S. ambassador to the UN, Power signaled her support for North Korean human rights during a 2016 visit to the home of a leading activist, the North Korean defector Jung Gwang-il, who himself leads efforts to send information to North Korea.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s apparent fondness for Kim might encourage one to assume that his fellow Republicans would support South Korea’s conciliatory approach, including the new limits on distributing information to North Korea. But some Republicans have already raised concerns. On December 11, Representative Chris Smith, Republican of New Jersey, issued a press release criticizing the new law and stating that he intended “to convene a hearing to examine the [South] Korean government’s failure to uphold civil and political rights.”
Instead of allowing North Korea’s repressive tactics to spill over into South Korea, Moon’s government should harness the technological innovation of its citizens and quietly support the vibrant ecosystem of South Korean civil society organizations that distribute information to North Koreans. Doing so would have the added benefit of reducing the current antagonism between the Moon administration and South Korean civil society organizations, which has hampered progress on shared goals. Meanwhile, the incoming Biden administration should make clear that it supports the protection of North Korean human rights and of South Korean civil liberties and should suggest to the Moon administration that it withdraw the new law.
Those who worry that such a step would set back reconciliation efforts should consider just how effective or sustainable an effort to make peace with Pyongyang can be if it requires drastic steps to limit free speech in South Korea. They also might wonder about the precedent set by the new law, and what further concessions the Moon government might prove willing to make to the Kim regime if this one goes unopposed.