By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) – A South Korean official likely to oversee North Korean ties said on Thursday he opposed a ban on sending propaganda into North Korea, signalling the possible return to the skies of leaflet-laden balloons that infuriate North Korea.
Kwon Young-se, nominated for the post of unification minister in a new conservative government, said he believed a ban on people sending propaganda, introduced by the outgoing liberal government as it tried to improve ties with the North, was a violation of the right to free speech.
“I thought legally regulating such activities was constitutionally problematic,” Kwon told reporters.
North Korean defectors and activists in South Korea had for decades sent balloons carrying leaflets floating across the tightly guarded border between the two Koreas.
They also sent food, medicine, money, mini radios and USB sticks loaded with South Korean news and dramas via balloons and plastic bottles on border waterways.
North Korea, which is still technically at war with the South after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, has in the past threatened to attack South Korea over the balloons.
The outgoing government banned the propaganda efforts in 2020 saying they jeopardised the safety of residents on the border.
Defectors and activists denounced the ban as part of efforts to white-wash the North and silence critics as the government tried to improve ties.
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, set to take office on May 10, nominated Kwon on Wednesday for the job of handling North Korea policy at the Unification Ministry as a new government takes shape that is expected to take a harder line with the North.
Kwon said he maintained a position set out in a 2021 commentary in which he called for abolishing the ban and accused the then administration of neglecting ordinary North Koreans.
“The current government appeared to be only keen to improve relations with the North’s leadership, and not interested in changing North Korean society,” he wrote at that time.
Kwon, who will face a parliamentary confirmation hearing, said it would be “difficult to normalise” inter-Korean ties at a time when Pyongyang continues to develop its nuclear programme.
A Yoon administration might look “hardline” and “hawkish” as it sought to build up its military capability to better deter North Korean threats but he would work to create momentum for dialogue to defuse tension, Kwon said.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Robert Birsel)