S. Korean activists clash with police over anti-Kim balloons

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean activists say they clashed with police when they launched balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang propaganda material over North Korea’s border, ignoring their government’s pleas to stop such activities, citing “deadly” reprisals from the North threatened.

Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector-turned-activist, said his group launched about eight balloons from an area in the South Korean border town of Paju on Saturday night when police officers arrived at the scene and prevented them from sending their 12 remaining balloons . Park said police confiscated some of their materials and arrested him and three other members of his group for minor scuffles with officers before releasing them after questioning.

Officials from the Paju Police Department and the northern Gyeonggi Province Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

The balloons flown to North Korea carried masks, Tylenol and vitamin C pills along with propaganda materials, including pamphlets praising South Korea’s economic prosperity and democratic society, and hundreds of USB sticks containing videos of US congressmen breaking the denounced the North’s human rights record, Park said.

One of the balloons carried a placard that read: “All humanity condemns Kim Jong Un who threatens to preemptively attack (South Korea) with nuclear missiles,” referring to the North Korean leader’s escalating nuclear doctrine, which is raising tensions with neighbors.

Saturday’s launch came weeks after the South Korean government asked activists to halt its balloon launches, citing concerns about the safety of residents in the border area. Lee Hyo-jung, spokesman for Seoul’s unification ministry, then said that the South would also “respond severely” to any North Korean retaliation over the balloons.

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Hostility between the Koreas has intensified this year as North Korea ramped up its missile testing activities to a record pace, pausing those tests with warnings that it would use its nuclear weapons preemptively in a variety of scenarios where it believes its leadership is threatened.

North Korea is extremely sensitive to outside criticism of the Kim family’s authoritarian rule over its people, most of whom have little access to foreign news. She has berated South Korea’s current conservative government for ballooning South Korean civil activists anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets and other “dirty trash” across the border, even claiming dubiously that the items caused the COVID-19 outbreak.

For years, Park has been levitating helium-filled balloons carrying leaflets and other propaganda material harshly criticizing the Kim family. After the emergence of COVID-19, he also started shipping masks, medicines and vitamins.

Last year, South Korea pushed through a controversial new law criminalizing civilian leafleting campaigns under its former liberal government, which wanted to improve inter-Korean relations. Park still released balloons and became the first person to be charged under the law, but his trial has been effectively stayed since he filed a petition asking the Constitutional Court to rule on whether the new law is unconstitutional , according to his attorney Lee Hunne.

Opponents of the law say it sacrifices South Korea’s freedom of expression in an attempt to improve ties with North Korea. Proponents say the law aims to avoid unnecessarily provoking North Korea and to promote the safety of frontline South Korean residents.

In 2014, North Korea fired on balloons flying towards its territory, and in 2020 it demolished an empty South Korean liaison office in the north to express anger at the leaflet distribution. In a failed assassination attempt in 2011, South Korean authorities arrested a North Korean agent who tried to kill Park with a pen equipped with a poisoned needle.

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