QI’s Jessica Lee Addresses Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

On April 15, 2021, Quincy Institute’s Senior Research Fellow on East Asia Jessica J. Lee testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) hearing entitled, “Civil and Political Rights in the Republic of Korea: Implications for Human Rights on the Peninsula.”

Below is an abridged version of her written testimony. Her full-length testimony and the video recording* of the hearing can be found here


Chairman McGovern, Chairman Smith, and other distinguished members of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, thank you for the opportunity to speak about civil and political rights in the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea), and their implications for human rights on the Korean Peninsula. 

A fact-based discussion about the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act, rooted in U.S. interests on the Korean Peninsula, is in order. 

U.S. priorities on the Korean Peninsula

The long-term goal of U.S. grand strategy should be to facilitate the creation of a peaceful global order consisting of fully sovereign, law-abiding states capable of providing for their own security. This includes a South Korea policy that eventually grows into a peer-to-peer relationship, rather than an unbalanced and perpetually dependent relationship between a protector and a protectorate. 

In a recent Quincy Institute report, we argued that the United States must gradually support the emergence of a strong and stable Korean Peninsula free from foreign military forces, rather than seek control and dependence indefinitely. Such a scenario assumes credible prior assurances from the United States, Japan, and China that a unified Korea would enjoy close economic, political, and security relations with all three countries. 

A peaceful unification process negotiated between the South and North Korean governments in consultation with the United States, Japan, China, and Russia would be the best path toward such a future, as opposed to change brought on by sudden provocation by a nuclear-armed North Korea or implosion of the Kim regime. The latter would likely lead to a prolonged period of instability on the peninsula and possibly a Sino-U.S. confrontation. All of this suggests the need for extensive consultations among the powers concerned regarding future contingencies and the path toward a stable Korean Peninsula, whether divided or not. 

For too long, the American foreign policy establishment has ignored these long-term political questions about the future of the Korean Peninsula. As a result, some are blindsided when domestic political developments in South Korea do not match our expectations. This may be why the news of the leaflet ban created such confusion and anxiety among both sides of the Pacific. American observers who claim that South Korea’s democracy is under threat point to the ban as the latest example of backsliding. In turn, South Korean leaders appear to be taken aback by the overly harsh tone of American observers about their law and have gone to extraordinary lengths to explain the democratic process that led to the creation of the law.

The fact is that the existing framework of the U.S.-ROK relationship is outdated and does not reflect the United States’ long-term strategic interest in having a strong, democratic ally in South Korea that is not overly manipulated by external pressure or control. The current relationship also gives South Koreans who receive funding from the U.S. government for their work disproportionate influence over more indigenous, Korean-led efforts. The coverage of the leaflet ban issue is a case in point.

On January 29, 2021, 421 South Korean civil society groups signed a joint statement in support of the law banning the distribution of leaflets to North Korea. But this statement and other Korean voices at the civil society level have been left out in most U.S. coverage of the leaflet issue. So too is the fact that the very reason the law was enacted in the first place was in response to the concerns of Korean residents in the border area.

South Korean Legislature’s Actions on Leaflets 

In December 2020, the South Korean National Assembly amended the “Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act” to “prohibit actions that cause danger to people’s lives and safety through loudspeaker broadcasting, visual materials posting, and leaflet dissemination in the areas along the Military Demarcation Line.” In doing so, Seoul has emphasized three aspects of the bill that are germane to today’s hearing. 

First, it has noted the long history of banning leaflet drops. Preventing “mutual slander” has been expressed in inter-Korean agreements of 1972, 1992, and 2018. However, some civil society organizations have continued to send leaflets and other materials across the border, despite requests from the South Korean government to desist. Given the fact that the Korean War never formally ended, and the nonexistent nature of official communication between the two Koreas, the risk of conflict flaring into war is real, particularly for the one million residents who live near the demilitarized zone.  

Secondly, the South Korean government has pointed to legal precedents in justifying the ban. In 2016, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that leaflet dissemination could create an “imminent and grave danger” to the people in the border, and that such action should be stopped for the benefit of public welfare. It has also pointed to international measures as examples of limiting propaganda in ideological conflicts. For example, during the Cold War, balloons were flown to Eastern communist bloc nations such as Czechoslovakia. In 1960, the International Civil Aviation Organization passed a resolution noting that the balloons were unsafe and should not be used.  

Third, Seoul has argued that leaflets are counterproductive to inter-Korean reconciliation and long-term peace for the Korean people. According to the Ministry of Unification, more diverse means of engagement, such as expanding inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation, and encouraging North Korea’s contact with the global community, will more effectively improve basic rights of North Koreans than sending bibles, USB drives, or other things across the border. 

Some have criticized the measure as being overly broad to include activities taken place in third countries, such as China. In response, the Ministry of Unification issued a guideline in March 2021 to clarify that the ban does not apply to leaflets flown from a third country or via international waters. In December 2020, a group of human rights groups in South Korea filed a complaint over the ban and requested a temporary suspension of the law, which was rejected by the Constitutional Court.

U.S. Response and Recommendations

In recent months, certain American officials have publicly voiced their concerns with the leaflet ban. In some respects, this is unsurprising given the longstanding involvement among American lawmakers in support of North Korean human rights. At the same time, publicly naming and shaming the South Korean law, and by extension, South Korea’s commitment to civil liberties, seems unusually harsh and polarizing. Predictably, it has been used by some actors in South Korea to criticize their government for being too eager to improve relations with North Korea – something that both progressive and conservative presidents have long sought to do. 

Perhaps U.S. concerns about the bill could have been addressed more directly if Washington had taken the time to speak to those who live on the South-North border or read the National Assembly’s public debates on the matter. Without such due diligence, U.S. efforts – however well-meaning – risk lacking sufficient local context to appropriately and constructively weigh in. 

Be that as it may, today’s hearing offers an opportunity to expand the public debate beyond the leaflet issue to America’s interest in the Korean Peninsula. 

Replacing the armistice with a peace agreement and empowering South Korea to lead on inter-Korean reconciliation (as part of an overall strategy aimed at reducing military tensions and severely reducing, if not ending, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program) are concrete ways that American policymakers can help advance human rights and civil liberties for all Korean people.  

Since the inauguration of President Joe Biden, there have been calls from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the administration to pursue North Korea diplomacy. The complexity of the North Korea challenge demands exploring all diplomatic options, such as ending the Korean War and enabling the two Koreas to co-exist without the constant threat of war. 

Such a position aligns with the American public’s desires. The Eurasia Group Foundation’s September 2020 poll showed that majorities of both Trump and Biden supporters believe the United States should negotiate directly with adversaries to avoid military confrontation, even if they are human rights abusers.


Decades after the armistice agreement temporarily ended the war, South Korea remains dependent on other countries to bring about peace. The ROK is not a party to the armistice agreement, complicating any South Korea-led peace efforts. Such efforts have been endorsed by both liberal and conservative governments alike. For example, in September 2005 the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration agreed to a set of commitments made in the Six-Party Talks regarding denuclearization and the aspirations for a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War. The subsequent conservative government led by President Lee Myung-bak backed a policy called “Mutual Benefits and Common Prosperity” that emphasized cooperation and co-existence between the two Koreas. 

In conclusion, any U.S. involvement on the leaflet issue should be grounded in advancing our interest in a stable Korean Peninsula, rather than politicized to further a particular narrative about South Korea’s commitment to democracy and freedom of expression. 

Watch video of the hearing here.

*The use of duplications of broadcast coverage of Commission events is governed by the rules of the U.S. House of Representatives. Proceedings of the Commission, including any recording of such proceedings, may not be used for any political purpose or in any commercial advertisement, and may not be broadcast with commercial sponsorship except as part of a bona fide news program or public affairs documentary program.