SEOUL • For years, North Korean defectors have used free speech protections of their new home in the South to taunt the Pyongyang regime. Now, South Korean President Moon Jae-in believes some of them have taken it too far.
Two brothers who led prominent defector groups were questioned by police last week, after Mr Moon’s administration sought to have them prosecuted over leaflets they sent north of the border.
Previously, Mr Park Sang-hak and his younger brother Jung-oh had to worry mainly about threats from Mr Kim Jong Un, whose regime has denounced them as “human scum”, dubbing the elder Mr Park “Enemy Zero”.
The episode has thrust North Korean defectors – and Mr Moon’s uneasy relationship with them – back into the spotlight.
Although Mr Moon entered politics seeking stronger human rights protections and a better relationship with North Korea, he has often found himself as President prioritising ties with Pyongyang over the abuses highlighted by defectors.
“This administration is trying to jail me for speaking the truth,” Mr Park Sang-hak, leader of activist Fighters for a Free North Korea group, said on Monday at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club.
Mr Park, who met then US President George W. Bush in 2008, was summoned on June 30 as part of an investigation that he violated laws governing inter-Korean exchanges.
Mr Moon’s office referred requests for comment about the Parks’ criticism on Monday to the Unification Ministry.
The ministry has urged defector groups to halt any actions that may provoke North Korea, saying in a statement that sending leaflets “poses a threat to the lives and safety of border-area residents of South Korea”.
Police are also investigating allegations that Mr Park Sang-hak attacked a female television producer who visited his house last month to ask about the leaflet controversy, South Korean media has reported.
He told journalists on Monday that he was acting out of concern for his family’s safety.
Mr Moon’s dispute with the defectors exposes a potential source of tension between South Korea and its key security ally as US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, the Trump administration’s top nuclear envoy, arrived yesterday.
American politicians, especially conservative Republicans, have long championed the cause of North Korean defectors in their criticism of the Kim regime.
While US President Donald Trump has also said little about human rights since launching a series of summits with Mr Kim in 2018, it has got him scant progress towards a deal to reduce Pyongyang’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.
North Korea last Saturday reaffirmed its opposition to direct talks with the United States, despite a fresh call from Mr Moon last week for the two sides to meet each other halfway.
The current controversy erupted after the Parks sent balloons over the Demilitarised Zone to scatter leaflets mocking Mr Kim’s lineage and describing him as “a devil who murdered his own brother”.
North Korea decried Mr Moon’s failure to stop the leaflets as proof of his weak support for reconciliation, and the President quickly moved to investigate the Parks.
Mr Kim escalated the issue further, blowing up the US$15 million (S$21 million) liaison office that Mr Moon’s administration built north of the border two years ago as a symbol of reconciliation.
Then suddenly, a week later, the North Korean leader announced that he was suspending unspecified “military action plans” against the South.
Many members of Mr Moon’s progressive Democratic Party of Korea have long viewed better ties with Pyongyang as an essential first step towards improving human rights, and the bloc is planning to ban further anti-Kim leaflet efforts.
“Pyongyang is probably thinking Seoul is not serious in fulfilling the 2018 joint declaration,” said lawmaker Woo Sang-ho, a former Democratic Party floor leader.
For many defectors, the most recent dispute points to a larger issue of Mr Moon overlooking North Korea’s human rights abuses.
The US State Department ranks the country among the world’s worst human rights abusers, accusing it of arbitrary killings, torture and a crackdown on any dissent backed by a network of prisons.
“There are definitely attempts by South Korea to silence the North Korean defector groups and individuals that are too annoying for North Korea,” said Ms Joanna Hosaniak, deputy director-general for the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. “Anyone can find (himself) on the blacklist.”
Meanwhile, South Korea is looking to cut the resettlement budget for defectors by more than 25 per cent, NK News reported last month, citing a person in the Unification Ministry.
The number of defectors arriving in South Korea has declined under Mr Moon, falling to 1,047 last year from 2,914 a decade earlier.
The difficulties defectors face gained attention last year after a mother and her six-year-old son who fled famine in North Korea died alone in a tiny Seoul-area apartment, apparently of starvation.
Mr Thae Yong-ho, a top-level North Korean diplomat who defected in 2016, won a seat in South Korea’s Parliament as a conservative in April pledging to push for stronger action against Mr Kim.