South Korea says it can't ban leaflet launches into North Korea

Balloons containing anti-North Korean leaflets are released by former North Korean defectors near the demilitarized zone in Paju on Oct 10, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Balloons containing anti-North Korean leaflets are released by former North Korean defectors near the demilitarized zone in Paju on Oct 10, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea said on Monday it would re-examine the issue of activists floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets into North Korea after an exchange of fire on the border, but stressed it could not simply ban the practice.

North Korea has long condemned the launch of large bundles of leaflets attached to giant helium balloons as a provocation, and last Friday it attempted to shoot some down with large-calibre machine guns. A number of rounds fell over the border, prompting South Korea to return fire, in a rare exchange over the heavily militarised land frontier. The police have been deployed in the past to prevent launches at times of heightened cross-border tensions.

The South's Unification Ministry said it had "no legal grounds" to ban the balloon launches outright, but said it had urged the activist groups to exercise self-restraint. It also suggested that launches could be prevented "if it is deemed necessary for the safety" of local residents. "The government, which is responsible for public safety and security, will take appropriate measures," ministry spokesman Lim Byeong Cheol told reporters.

On Sunday, North Korea threatened "stronger physical strikes" against leaflet launches and urged South Korea to stop "reckless acts" that would undermine a recent agreement to resume a high-level dialogue.

South Korean President Park Geun Hye responded on Monday by vowing a "stern" response to any North Korean provocation, while stressing that the door to dialogue remained open.

The high-level talks, last held in February, are meant to resume by early November.