Senior South Korea’s politicians have moved to defend the government’s decision to criminalise anti-Pyongyang leaflet launches following stinging criticism from abroad over the new law. Activists have for years used huge helium-filled balloons to carry leaflets criticising North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and human rights record across the border, along with US dollars and USB sticks with information about world news. The practice has long been a sore point between the two countries , prompting Seoul to pass legislation banning the launches and making them punishable by up to three years in prison or a fine of 30 million won (US$27,730). Some US lawmakers and NGOs have in recent days suggested Seoul has jeopardised freedom of speech to appease North Korean leader Kim Jong-un . However, South Korean government figures have insisted the legislation was designed to avert cross-border clashes and ultimately protect people’s lives. “It is regrettable that some segment of the US Congress is mentioning the reconsideration of the new law,” Lee Nak-yeon, head of South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party, said on Monday. “Everyone should respect [South] Korean people’s rights to safety and the decision made by the country’s parliament.” Lee, who is considered a contender for the 2022 presidential election, dismissed concerns about freedom of speech, insisting they were based on “misunderstanding and misinformation” and that the safety of South Koreans living near the border was paramount. “Freedom of expression must be respected but you can’t put it over people’s rights to life and safety,” he said. “Restricting freedom of expression by laws is justified if it puts others’ lives and national security in harm’s way.” Lee’s comments echoed remarks made last week by Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, who told CNN that residents near the border had been urging an end to leafleting since a launch in 2014 led to shots being fired. First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun also noted a 2016 Supreme Court ruling regarding the leaflet launches that found it would be “very difficult to recognise freedom of expression when people’s lives are threatened”. In Washington, Republican Congressman Chris Smith last week argued the South Korean law criminalises humanitarian outreach to the North, slamming it as “inane legislation” and suggesting it violated the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. He said the US State Department should re-evaluate South Korea’s commitment to democratic values in its annual report. Congressman Michael McCaul, who serves as the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the ban would exacerbate the brutal isolation of ordinary North Koreans. North Korea to turn Mount Kumgang tourist area into a ‘resort envied by the whole world’ “Freedom of expression is a core democratic value,” McCaul said. “A bright future for the Korean Peninsula rests on North Korea becoming more like South Korea – not the other way around.” The New York-based Human Rights Watch also criticised the South Korean law for criminalising humanitarian activism. In response, a joint statement signed by 17 South Korean peace organisations denounced the criticism as an “intervention in domestic affairs that poses danger to peace and undermines the prospect for inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation”. Leaflets launches have for years been a source of tension between the neighbours. North Korea in June cut ties with the South and demolished a jointly run liaison office in response to such launches. Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of North Korea’s leader, accused the South of turning a blind eye to the involvement of North Korean defectors, and breaching a 2018 agreement between the countries. She called North Korean defectors involved in the leafleting campaign “human scum” and “mongrel dogs”. According to one former North Korean military officer who defected in 2009, the leaflets have little chance to reach ordinary citizens as soldiers immediately collect and incinerate them, and anyone found possessing such contraband is severely punished.