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Boat’s border crossing covered up, says report

June 25,2019
Top military officials held a secret meeting to discuss a security breach on the maritime border shortly after their initial detection of a North Korean boat’s arrival in a northeastern harbor earlier this month, the JoongAng Ilbo reported Monday, fueling suspicions of an elaborate cover story being dreamt up for the press.

After a North Korean dinghy entered Samcheok Harbor, Gangwon, on the morning of June 15, a meeting of top officials took place in the underground bunker of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, multiple military sources told the JoongAng Ilbo on Sunday. They said Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Park Han-ki, attended.

Another government source told the JoongAng Ilbo that the participants were briefed on the Korea Coast Guard’s report that the North Korean boat managed to moor in at the harbor and a local passerby called the police to sound the alarm.

According to the sources, the meeting was convened in a conference room inside the underground command and control center on the morning of June 15. In addition to Jeong and Park, directors of the National Defense Ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff also attended.

Earlier that morning, the Coast Guard sent reports to the Blue House, Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Intelligence Service that a wooden North Korean boat and four crew were discovered in Samcheok Harbor. The ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff officials were told to attend the meeting, the sources said.

“The participants all agreed that the situation was grave,” another government source told the JoongAng Ilbo. “At the meeting, the participants decided on how to respond to media inquiries. They decided that until the government questioning of the North Koreans ended, they would give a respond that ‘the case is being investigated and please wait for an outcome,’” the source said.

At the meeting, some pointed out that the military would face criticism for having failed to properly guard the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border, in the East Sea. They discussed a plan for a team from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be dispatched to check on maritime and coastal guards at the site, the sources said. Such a team was sent to Gangwon later in the afternoon.

The meeting attended by the military leadership on June 15 was a clear indication that the Ministry of National Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were aware of the details about the North Korean boat. Yet the ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff offered lies during a background briefing on June 17.

During the briefing, a military official told the media that the boat was discovered “near” Samcheok Harbor, although it had managed to dock in the harbor. Although the boat used its own engine to enter the harbor, the official told media, “It was hard to detect the boat because it was adrift.”

During the briefing, the military also said there were no flaws in the border security operations.

It was later revealed that the boat crossed the eastern maritime border on June 12 and freely sailed in South Korean territorial waters for nearly 58 hours until it moored in the harbor. It was also revealed that one of the crew made it to land and asked a passerby to borrow a mobile phone. The government became aware of the arrival of the North Koreans only after the passerby called police.

After being questioned, two of the North Koreans were sent home through Panmunjom on Tuesday. The other two defected to the South.

Following the JoongAng Ilbo report, the Ministry of National Defense admitted Monday that the military leadership did have a meeting in the bunker on June 15. Choi Hyun-soo, spokeswoman for the ministry, admitted that the participants had the understanding at the time that the military had failed to defend the border.

An official from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, told the Yonhap News Agency on Monday that the meeting was not to discuss a media strategy to keep the situation low profile. “It wasn’t a strategy meeting,” he said. “It was to manage the situation and take necessary measures.”

It remains to be seen if the Blue House was involved in the attempt to mislead the media to cover-up the military’s failure to stop a border breach. Because an official of the National Security Office of the Blue House had secretly monitored the media briefing on June 17 and another briefing two days later, politicians, particularly the conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party, have said the presidential office was behind the cover-up attempt.

The police said Monday that it informed the Blue House through its own channel about the arrival of the North Korean ship on June 15. After an infiltrator approached and introduced himself as a North Korean, the passerby telephoned the police hotline at 6:46 a.m. on June 15. Gangwon Provincial Police Agency, which had jurisdiction over Samcheok Harbor, then requested the Coast Guard’s joint operation at 6:50 a.m.

The National Police Agency informed the State Affairs Planning and Monitoring Office of the Blue House about the boat’s arrival. The report, classified as urgent, stated that a wooden boat carrying four North Korean sailors was moored in Samcheok Harbor.

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]


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