Lee Shin-hwa, Seoul's new envoy for North Korean human rights, said Wednesday that it is vital to keep spreading information from the outside world into the North. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
SEOUL, Aug. 24 (UPI) -- Sending information from the outside world into the secretive North Korean state is vital, Seoul's new envoy for human rights said Wednesday, even as Pyongyang has angrily condemned such efforts.
"I do believe disseminating information to North Korean citizens is very important through various means," Lee Shin-hwa, South Korea's ambassador of international cooperation on North Korea human rights, told reporters at a briefing in downtown Seoul.
"North Korean ordinary people have the full right to have open and transparent information on what is going on around the world," she said.
North Korea has reacted with fury in the past to defectors sending balloons carrying content including leaflets and USB drives across the border. In June 2020, Pyongyang severed all communications with Seoul and blew up an inter-Korean liaison office over what it called South Korea's failure to rein in the defectors.
Lee said she was not in a position to officially comment on methods for delivering the information into North Korea.
"I do believe there are many traditional and non-traditional or creative ways of sending information to fulfill [North Koreans'] right to know," she said.
More recently, North Korea blamed its COVID-19 outbreak on balloons and other "alien things" that had been sent across the border from the South.
Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, warned of a "deadly retaliatory" response if the South does not contain the balloons during a speech earlier this month.
Lee, a political science professor at Korea University, filled the human rights envoy position last month. It had been vacant since 2017, as the administration of President Moon Jae-in downplayed rights issues in an effort to foster diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang.
Moon's government passed a law in December 2020 that prohibits sending propaganda or items such as flash drives into the North, drawing sharp criticism from political opponents and free speech advocates.
Current President Yoon Suk-yeol has looked to recalibrate Seoul's stance toward Pyongyang, taking a stronger defense posture and reviving several North Korean human rights initiatives since taking office in May.
In addition to filling the ambassador post, Yoon's administration will be holding the first inter-agency government meeting on its North Korean human rights policy in two years on Thursday. Seoul is also attempting to launch the government-run North Korea Human Rights Foundation, which has been on hold since 2016.
"It is great that South Korea finally appointed a North Korea human rights ambassador after five years' absence," Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, a legal analyst with Seoul-based human rights NGO Transitional Justice Working Group, told UPI.
Shin called sending information to North Korea "difficult but necessary and important for long-term change" and called on the Yoon administration to abolish the anti-leafleting law.
He added that Seoul should take further steps, including revitalizing an official North Korea Human Rights Archive and formally asking Pyongyang about the fate of two escapees who were forcibly returned to the North by South Korean authorities in 2019.
Lee on Wednesday said South Korea would take a "leading role" in bringing North Korean human rights issues to the international community.
The rights envoy also called for diplomatic pressure to urge Beijing not to deport North Korean defectors who have fled into China.
The flow of North Korean defectors to South Korea has trickled to a near standstill over the past few years, with only 63 escapees arriving in 2021, down from 1,047 in 2019, according to Seoul's unification ministry.
An estimated 1,500 North Koreans are being detained in China while borders remain closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a United Nations human rights expert said in March. They are at risk of being repatriated once the border reopens, where they will likely receive severe punishment in political prison camps.
"Consideration should be given to allowing the Chinese government to engage in negotiations to send them to a third country through quiet diplomacy," Lee said.
Lee is slated to meet with the new U.N. special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, Elizabeth Salmon, on her first visit to South Korea next week.