SEOUL, July 6 (UPI) -- A standoff over information leaflets being sent by defectors into North Korea flared again Monday, as the South Korean government condemned the action and heads of activist groups vowed to continue the practice, which has been at the center of rising inter-Korean tensions.
Seoul's Ministry of Unification said in a statement that sending the leaflets raises tensions and "poses a threat to the lives and safety of border area residents of the South."
The ministry added that the actions violate the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act and challenged the argument that sending leaflets is unconditionally allowed under freedom of expression protections.
"[F]reedom of expression is not unlimited but can be restricted for national security and public welfare," the statement said. "The government intends to regulate unlawful acts without severely restricting basic rights."
The Ministry of Unification last month filed criminal complaints against the leaders of two defector organizations responsible for sending leaflets and plastic bottles filled with rice to the North, Park Sang-hak and his brother Park Jung-o. Last week, police brought the brothers in for questioning, days after they raided the offices of their groups.
However, at a press conference in Seoul on Monday, the brothers vowed to continue their activities and to fight any legal charges brought against them.
"As long as [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un continues to threaten South Korea with nuclear missiles and nuclear armaments, we will continue to send leaflets to North Korea," said Park Sang-hak, who leads the group Fighters for a Free North Korea. "And as long as he continues to pressure millions of our fellow North Korean residents at detention camps, we will continue to send leaflets."
The group last sent 500,000 leaflets on 20 balloons to the North on June 22. South Korean officials claimed that most of the balloons didn't make it across, but Park Sang-hak said Monday that up to 18 of the balloons completed their journey.
The activist has been sending the leaflets and other items such as USB drives containing South Korean media and dollar bills on balloons since 2004, but in early June, North Korea started a campaign of near daily denunciations of the practice in official state media.
Pyongyang went on to sever all communications with Seoul and blow up the inter-Korean liaison office in the border city of Kaesong over what it called South Korea's failure to rein in the defectors.
A recent report suggested that North Korea had responded so strongly to the leaflets because the defectors included pornographic altered images of Kim Jong Un's wife, Ri Sol Ju, but Park Sang-hak said Monday his group was not responsible for the images.
South Korean authorities have prevented defectors sending leaflets in the past, citing safety concerns for those living in the border areas with North Korea. In 2015, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea argued that the leaflets should not be stopped and that doing so would infringe on freedom of expression.
However, a Supreme Court ruling in 2016 found that the government could restrict the sending of leaflets if they posed "an urgent and serious danger to the lives of the people living in or near the area where the leaflets pass across the border."
The South Korean government has said it's planning to introduce new legislation to stop the practice.
Lee Hun, an attorney representing the defector brothers, said Monday the government doesn't have a compelling case against his clients.
"[The government] is trying to enact a law first and then make the regulations that make it punishable by law," Lee said. "It's because with the existing law and the legal systems there is no way that it could be punishable.
"I believe that we have a case, legally as well as in common sense, that we can fight for our rights."
Park Sang-hak said he won't stop sending leaflets and that attention the government has placed on his group has increased donations from the public.
"In the past, I thought it was regrettable that a lot of the public was not quite attentive to our activities, but with the current activities from the government trying to pressure us and trying to stop our activities, our donations have increased by three times," he said.
He added that even if he were sent to jail, the leaflet practice would continue.
"I believe that even if I am in jail, a second or third Park Sang-hak will continue to send the leaflets to North Korea, telling the truth and dispersing the truth over Kim Jong Un's head."