Activists go underground in anti-North Korean information campaign

International human rights groups vowed to work clandestinely to spread information into North Korea, defying a move by South Korean president Moon Jae-in to crack down on activists launching balloons with anti-Kim regime leaflets and electronic devices.

The South Korean government this week promised to stop all anti-North Korean material from crossing the border in a bid to improve relations after Pyongyang on Tuesday cut its most important communication channels with Seoul.

Suzanne Scholte, chair of North Korea Freedom Coalition, a US-based organisation supporting South Korean groups, told the Financial Times that while Mr Moon’s decision was a “frightening” acquiescence to the Kim regime, efforts to get information into the closed-off state would continue.

“It will never stop — it will just be done clandestinely . . . as long as the defectors get the financial support the work will carry on. More people will rise up to take the place of those who are struck down,” she said.

Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at Human Rights Foundation, a New York-based non-governmental organisation that helps smuggle tens of thousands of electronic storage devices into North Korea via China each year, also said his group had no plans to change tack.

Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister and a top adviser to the dictator, this month described defector groups involved in the information campaigns as “human scum” and that it was “time to bring their owners to account”.

Many North Korea experts believe, however, that the resumption of Pyongyang’s hostilities towards Seoul are part of a broader strategy to pressure Washington to ease crippling international sanctions.

On Friday, Ri Son Gwon, North Korea’s foreign minister, noted it had been two years since the historic first meeting between President Donald Trump and Mr Kim in Singapore but said relations had “shifted into despair”. He also signalled that Pyongyang would continue to develop nuclear weapons.

“The secure strategic goal of [North Korea] is to build up more reliable force to cope with the long-term military threats from the US,” Mr Ri said, according to a statement carried by state news agency KCNA.

Seoul’s information crackdown has returned the spotlight to Mr Moon, a former human rights lawyer, over his treatment of North Korean defectors who seek to help ordinary North Koreans break free from decades of propaganda from the Kim regime.

“It is tremendously disappointing. Instead of pressing charges against these civil society organisations they should be giving them grants,” Mr Gladstein said, referring to Seoul’s threat of legal action against groups that continue to launch balloons.

Since taking office in 2017, Mr Moon has sought to improve ties with the North Korean leader, including pushing for family reunions between the estranged countries and economic co-operation, as well as toning down criticism of the Kim regime. 

John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University, argued that Mr Moon’s pursuit of engagement with Pyongyang could improve human rights.

“You can debate which strategy is more effective. There is a transformational theory behind engagement, and it has human rights implications but it is a very different approach: gentler, more gradual and based on co-operation.”

He added: “The view is that when you send balloons or when you use the UN or public forums to chastise the North Koreans, it sounds good, but you are not getting tangible changes or human rights progress on the ground.”