Dec. 17 (UPI) -- South Korea expressed "regret" after a U.N. investigator raised concerns regarding the passage of a bill that could lead to a prison sentence of up to three years for anti-Pyongyang leafleting at the DMZ.
A South Korean unification ministry official issued an unprecedented statement on Thursday, directly addressing the comments from U.N. official Tomás Ojea Quintana, while defending the law that could also fine activists up to $27,000 for sending balloons containing pamphlets, Oh My News and Hankyoreh reported.
"We express our regret for the mention of a 'need for an appropriate review of democratic institutions' by U.N. Special Rapporteur for North Korean Human Rights Tomás Ojea Quintana, regarding the democratic discussions and deliberations held in accordance with the procedures set by the [South Korean] Constitution and laws of the National Assembly, a body that is representative of public opinion," the unification ministry said in its statement.
Seoul also said the anti-leafleting bill, which passed Monday, "protects lives and maintains security of the people in the border region," while safeguarding freedom of expression.
On Wednesday Quintana told Radio Free Asia's Korean service the South Korean amendment included too-severe penalties for defectors who send information on flash drives and DVDs at the border.
"This penalty of imprisonment seems to be excessive for actions which are based on the exercise of the freedom of expression, a cornerstone for a democratic society," Quintana said.
"Under international human rights law, to which South Korea is obliged, restrictions on freedom of expression must be ... justified by a concrete necessity."
In November, Quintana criticized Seoul for not co-sponsoring a U.N. resolution on North Korea human rights.
The leafleting is "happening in a very sensitive area -- the most militarized zone in the whole world -- with people living right next to the border area," Kang said.
"Freedom of expression, I think, is absolutely vital to human rights. But it's not absolute."
South Korea moved to ban leaflet activism after North Korean politician Kim Yo-jong criticized defectors and described them as "human scum."