• Reuters

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North Korea said on Thursday the United States has no standing to comment on inter-Korean affairs, and it is in Washington’s interest to stay quiet if it wants the upcoming U.S. presidential election to go smoothly, state media reported.

The statement comes after the U.S. State Department said it was disappointed at North Korea for suspending communication hotlines with South Korea on Tuesday.

“If the U.S. pokes its nose into others’ affairs with careless remarks, far from minding its internal affairs, at a time when its political situation is in the worst-ever confusion, it may encounter an unpleasant thing hard to deal with,” Kwon Jong Gun, director-general for U.S. affairs at North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, said in comments carried by state-run Korean Central News Agency.

The United States should “hold its tongue” and address its own domestic problems unless it wants to “experience a hair-raiser,” he said.

“It would be good not only for the U.S. interests but also for the easy holding of upcoming presidential election.”

It is unclear what North Korea would do to disrupt the election or cause problems for U.S. President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, said James Kim, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

“If anything, there’s a chance that provocation may even rally the country around the incumbent,” he said.

After a series of historic summits in 2018 and 2019 between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, little progress has been made in dismantling the North’s nuclear weapons program and Pyongyang has expressed increasing frustration with Washington’s refusal to ease sanctions.

North Korea said on Tuesday it would sever hotlines with South Korea after days of lashing out at Seoul for not stopping defectors from sending leaflets and other material into the North.

On Wednesday, South Korea said it would take legal action against two organizations that conduct such operations.

Any action against the groups is likely to trigger a debate over freedom of expression in South Korea, and whether President Moon Jae-in’s liberal government is sacrificing democratic principles to keep alive his ambitions for inter-Korean engagement.

One of the targeted defector-activists condemned what he described as a “treacherous” move by Seoul and vowed to launch even more leaflets across the border in coming weeks, using not only balloons but also drones.

Yoh Sang-key, the ministry’s spokesman, told reporters the two organizations facing charges had “created tensions between the South and North and brought danger to the lives and safety of (South Korean) residents in border areas.”

The ministry said last week that the government would push new laws to ban activists from flying the leaflets across the border, after the North threatened to end an inter-Korean military agreement reached in 2018 to reduce tensions if Seoul failed to prevent the protests.

For years, activists have floated huge balloons into North Korea carrying leaflets criticizing leader Kim Jong Un over his nuclear ambitions and dismal human rights record. The leafleting has sometimes triggered a furious response from North Korea, which bristles at any attempt to undermine its leadership.

In 2014, soldiers exchanged fire after South Korean activists released propaganda balloons across the Demilitarized Zone, but no casualties were reported.

While Seoul has sometimes sent police officers to block the activists during sensitive times, it had previously resisted North Korea’s calls to fully ban them, saying they were exercising their freedom.

Yoh said that the two groups, led by North Korean defector Park Sang-hak and his brother Park Jung-oh, violated a law governing inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation by sending unauthorized materials to the North. The ministry confirmed it was the first time the law, which is designed to prevent South Korean organizations from providing unauthorized goods to North Korea, was being used against defectors’ anti-Pyongyang activities.

Park Sang-hak’s Fighters for a Free North Korea has launched balloons with anti-Pyongyang leaflets for years. Park Jung-oh leads the group Keun Saem, which on Monday unsuccessfully tried to float rice-filled bottles into North Korea from a border town before being blocked by South Korean police.

“Since when has the Ministry of Unification become the ministry of treason?” Park Sang-hak said. “We will respond not with words but with action, by flying even more leaflets to North Korean people.”

Park said he will also try to use drones so that he “could drop the leaflets on Kim Jong Un’s head.” He didn’t say when the launches will happen, but that he was ready “whenever the winds are good.”

The ministry didn’t say whether it was planning to take similar legal action against another group led by Lee Min-bok, also a North Korean defector who has been flying leaflets into the North for years.

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