NEW YORK, Aug. 6 (UPI) -- Kim Yo Jong's outburst over North Korean defectors in the South who distribute anti-Pyongyang leaflets could be driven by genuine fear of information seeping into the country, a human rights expert says.
Leaflets condemning the single-minded authoritarian rule of Kim Jong Un do not always make it across the border in helium balloons. But when they do, they can end up in the hands of the people who serve as a pillar for the regime's security, according to Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
"The key point about the balloons is that 80 percent of the Korean People's Army is forward deployed south of the Pyongyang-Wonsan line," Scarlatoiu told UPI.
"Many of these units are within reach [of the balloons]. Even if they round up all of the leaflets, the North Korean officers in charge are going to read them."
Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un's sister who has called defectors "human scum" and "rubbish-like mongrel dogs," could be nervous about the eroding isolation of ordinary North Koreans, who live only a few hours away from Koreans in the South, one of the most wired societies in the world.
The regime keeps a tight lid on outside information. There are only 2,000 IP addresses for a population of 25 million people, according to Scarlatoiu.
In response to North Korean threats of retaliation against the South, Seoul recently moved to ban balloon launches and revoked the operating licenses of two organizations, Fighters for a Free North Korea and Kuensaem. South Korea has also called for continued engagement even after Pyongyang demolished the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong.
South Korea's decision to penalize activists diminishes the prospect of delivering information to North Korea, says Suzanne Scholte, the chair of North Korea Freedom Coalition in Washington. Scholte recently sent letters to South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
"We should be amplifying the voices of the North Korean defectors, as they are our most powerful, peaceful way to reach people in North Korea," Scholte said in an email to UPI.
"Remember what the defectors are sending: rice, money, protective masks, [South Korean] Choco Pies, shortwave radios, memory cards and leaflets with information to North Korea.
"Meanwhile, the North Korean regime threatens to attack with missiles and cigarette butts."
Jihyun Park, a North Korean defector and activist in Britain, said the policies being upheld in Seoul are part of a greater problem: lack of public awareness in South Korea about the plight of North Koreans trying to flee the country.
While South Koreans are informed about the global refugee crisis, North Korean defectors are not perceived as refugees escaping a repressive regime, Park said. Those perceptions have enabled Seoul to target defector groups for "inspections" without any real repercussions.
"The crackdown is taking place in [democratic] South Korea," Park said. "It's unfortunate."
The government's warnings against anti-North Korea activity could be an attempt to appease the North. Moon, who remains determined to complete his quest to sign a peace treaty with Kim Jong Un, could be thinking that curbing defector activity could help diplomacy and burnish his legacy.
"The South Korean government may hope that this would placate the North Korean regime and create the space for Seoul to make inroads into inter-Korea cooperation," said Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the RAND Corp. "But allowing North Korea's deeds to go unpunished only emboldens Kim and gives Pyongyang greater leeway."
Scarlatoiu, who says the Moon administration has been tougher on North Korean defectors raising human rights awareness than previous progressive administrations, said the decision to audit activists sends the wrong cue to defectors and the North Korean leadership.
"The signal is be afraid, stop engaging in these activities," Scarlatoiu said.
"Well, guess what. It's balloons today, radio tomorrow. It's any human rights NGO" activities that could fall under scrutiny, he said.