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South Korean border province governors bicker over anti-Pyongyang leaflets

June 12, 2024 - 18:20 By Kim Arin
Democratic Party of Korea chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung speaks at a party task force meeting on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

The governors of two South Korean provinces bordering North Korea on Wednesday clashed on how to deal with activists flying leaflets targeting North Koreans over the border, after once again being harassed by trash balloons launched by Pyongyang over the weekend.

Kim Dong-yeon, the governor of Gyeonggi Province from the Democratic Party of Korea, said at a meeting with provincial military and fire authorities the same day that if things got worse he would strengthen surveillance against attempts to send leaflets and other items across the border.

“Our provincial office plans to increase patrol around border areas, should the security situation worsen,” the governor said. “We are taking these measures not just as a response to the leaflets, but to protect the safety and peace of the province.”

He slammed the conservative Yoon Suk Yeol administration for “doing nothing” regarding the anti-Pyongyang leaflets being flown by South Korean activists, calling for “concrete actions” from the government.

Kim Jin-tae, the governor of Gangwon Province from the People Power Party, said that stopping leaflet activism was not the right approach to tackling the North Korean balloons.

“The Gyeonggi governor would clamp down on leaflets and not the trash balloons, when it should be the other way around,” he wrote on his Facebook. “You do not punish a kid for standing up to a bully.”

Wednesday’s remarks by the Gyeonggi Province governor came after his predecessor and the chair of the Democratic Party, Rep. Lee Jae-myung, criticized the Yoon administration for failing to respond to the leaflet activists.

In a meeting of his party task force for “managing the Korean Peninsula crisis” held Tuesday, the Democratic Party leader labeled the sending of anti-Pyongyang leaflets to North Korea as “illegal.”

“When I was governor of Gyeonggi Province, I put a stop to the leaflet campaign against North Korea because it is illegal under the existing laws,” he said.

The Democratic Party task force also argued that North Korea could wage biological warfare using the balloons.

“The North Korean balloons were found to carry garbage so far. But to assume that they will continue to have garbage only is just being complacent,” the head of the party task force, Rep. Kim Byung-joo, said.

“We must prepare for the possibility North Korea could send biological weapons and other harmful weapons along with the balloons.”

Some experts, however, disagreed with the opposition leader's demand to ban the leaflet campaign as well as Rep. Kim's claim of the possibility of Pyongyang sending biological weapons.

Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told The Korea Herald on Wednesday that South Korea’s Constitutional Court had already found a ban on leaflet activism to be a violation of freedom of expression.

“We cannot expect our government to do something that our court had already deemed to be unconstitutional,” he pointed out.

Yang Uk, a research fellow at Asan Institute of Policy Studies, told The Korea Herald that it was “very unlikely” that the North Korean balloons could carry biological material “unless a full-blown war is a risk they are willing to take.”

Meanwhile, the balloon launches from North Korea drew censure from Philip Goldberg, the United States ambassador to South Korea.

Speaking at a discussion hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Tuesday, he said that what North Korea is doing with the balloons is “outrageous and so counterproductive to that reduction of tensions.”

“We will stand by ROK (South Korea) allies absolutely in all of this,” he added.