SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - For years, North Korean defectors have used free speech protections of their new home in South Korea to taunt the regime in Pyongyang. Now, South Korean President Moon Jae-in believes some have taken it too far.
Two brothers who led prominent defector groups were questioned by police last week, after Mr Moon's administration sought to have them prosecuted over leaflets they sent north of the border.
Previously, Mr Park Sang-hak and Mr Park Jung-oh chiefly had to worry about threats from Mr Kim Jong Un, whose regime has denounced them as "human scum," dubbing the elder Mr Park "Enemy Zero."
The episode has thrust North Korean defectors - and Mr Moon's uneasy relationship with them - back into the spotlight. While Mr Moon entered politics seeking both stronger human rights protections and a better relationship with North Korea, he has often found himself as president prioritising ties with Pyongyang over the abuses highlighted by defectors.
"This administration is trying to jail me for speaking the truth," Mr Park Sang-hak, chairman of an activist group the Fighters for Free North Korea, told reporters Monday (July 6) at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club.
Mr Park, who met then-US President George W. Bush in 2008, was summoned June 30 as part of an investigation that he violated laws governing inter-Korean exchanges.
Mr Moon's office referred requests for comment about the Parks' criticism Monday to the Unification Ministry. The ministry urged defector groups to halt any actions that may provoke North Korea, saying in a statement that sending leaflets "poses a threat to the lives and safety of border area residents of South Korea."
Police are also investigating allegations that Mr Park Sang-hak attacked a female television producer who visited his house last month to ask about the leaflet controversy, South Korean media including the Yonhap News Agency have reported. He told journalists Monday that he was acting out of concern for his family's safety, without elaborating.
Mr Moon's dispute with the defectors exposes a potential source of tension between South Korea and its key security ally as US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, the Trump administration's top nuclear envoy, arrived Tuesday.
US politicians, especially conservative Republicans, have long championed the cause of North Korean defectors in their criticism of the Kim regime.
Before Mr Biegun arrived in South Korea, a top North Korean foreign ministry official branded Mr Moon a "meddlesome man," for trying to broker talks between US President Donald Trump and Mr Kim, and said inter-Korean relations are bound to go bankrupt if his government keeps talking "nonsense."
The state-run Korean Central News Agency cited the official, Mr Kwon Jong Gun, as saying Pyongyang has no intention to "sit face to face with the US."
While Mr Trump has also said little about human rights since launching a series of summits with Mr Kim in 2018, it has got him scant progress toward a deal to reduce Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal. North Korea on Saturday reaffirmed its opposition to direct talks with the US, despite a fresh call from Mr Moon last week for the two sides to meet each other halfway.
The current controversy erupted after the Parks sent balloons over the Demilitarised Zone to scatter leaflets mocking Mr Kim's lineage and describing him as "a devil who murdered his own brother." North Korea decried Mr Moon's failure to stop the leaflets as proof of his weak support for reconciliation and the president quickly moved to prosecute the Parks.
Mr Kim escalated further, blowing up the US$15 million (S$20.95 million) liaison office that Mr Moon administration built north of the border two years ago as a symbol of reconciliation. Suddenly a week later, the North Korean leader announced that he was suspending unspecified "military action plans" against the south.
Many members of Mr Moon's progressive Democratic Party of Korea have long viewed better ties with Pyongyang as an essential first step toward improving human rights, and the bloc is planning to ban further anti-Kim leaflets efforts.
"Pyongyang is probably thinking Seoul is not serious in fulfilling the 2018 joint declaration," said lawmaker Woo Sang-ho, a former Democratic Party floor leader.
For many defectors, the most recent dispute points to a larger issue of Mr Moon overlooking North Korean human rights abuses. The State Department ranks the country among the world's worst human rights abusers, accusing it of arbitrary killings, torture and a crackdown on any dissent backed by a network of political prisons.
"There are definitely attempts by South Korea to silence the North Korean defector groups and individuals that are too annoying for North Korea," said Ms Joanna Hosaniak, deputy director-general for the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. "Anyone can find itself on the black list."
Meanwhile, South Korea is looking to cut the resettlement budget for defectors by more than 25 per cent, NK News, a news service specialising in North Korea, reported last month, citing a person in the Unification Ministry. The number of defectors arriving in South Korea has declined under Mr Moon, falling to 1,047 last year from 2,914 a decade earlier.
The difficulties defectors face gained attention last year after a mother and her six-year-old son who fled famine in North Korea died alone in a tiny Seoul-area apartment, apparently of starvation. Mr Thae Yong-ho, a top level North Korea diplomat who defected in 2016, won a seat in South Korea's parliament as a conservative in April pledging to push for stronger action against Mr Kim.
On Monday, the Unification Ministry said it had "continuously monitored the implementation of measures designed to help North Korean defectors." Mr Choi Seong-guk, a North Korea-born animator who fled to South Korea a decade ago, said the current administration doesn't like people who "are critical of the dictatorship" complicating its efforts at reconciliation.
"The current administration is trying too hard to appease Pyongyang," Mr Choi said. "It is completely ignoring the human rights movement for North Korea."