Seoul explains repatriation of alleged killers

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Seoul explains repatriation of alleged killers

South Korea last year repatriated two North Koreans who fled south after allegedly murdering 16 fellow sailors on a squid boat because they showed little sincerity in their desire to defect, Seoul told the United Nations Human Rights Council.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (Ohchr) on Wednesday, the South Korean government submitted a response to an inquiry from Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in North Korea.

Seoul’s response said that the two North Koreans - who drifted into South Korean waters on a fishing vessel in November - expressed a willingness to defect, but that they didn’t seem sincere due to the fact that they tried to evade capture by the South Korean Navy. One of the sailors even attempted suicide.

The two escapees, both men aged in their 20s, worked as fishermen in the North but had fled after allegedly killing 16 fellow crewmen sometime in late October. The pair told South Korean authorities they had wanted to take revenge on the ship’s captain, who had subjected them to constant physical abuse.

The South also said that its repatriation decision was prompted by the difficulty of guaranteeing a fair trial for the sailors due to the difficulty of gathering evidence, Ohchr said. Asserting jurisdiction over the case, in light of the fact the alleged crime took place in the North, could jeopardize the safety of the South Korean people, Seoul told the office.

Seoul also considered applying human rights clauses in international agreements that South Korea has signed. But no conditions were applicable to the sailors, South Korea said, because of the serious nonpolitical crimes they were accused of, which would disqualify them from being considered refugees.

The government’s decision to send back the two sailors sparked complaints from defector groups in South Korea, who accused Seoul of ignoring the duo’s human rights.

It is not known how North Korean authorities dealt with the two sailors after their repatriation. North Korea enforces the death penalty for felony murder charges under Article 266 of its criminal law code.

Quintana has been active in calling out egregious human rights violations in North Korea. In January, he expressed concern at Seoul’s decision to send the two sailors back to the North and inquired about the legal basis of the action.

Last month, the UN rapporteur advised the United States and other countries to review their economic sanctions on North Korea so the country can get the medical and scientific assistance it needs to combat the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Pyongyang insists it has had no confirmed virus cases on its soil, though experts have questioned this claim. Quintana acknowledged the North’s extensive efforts to clamp down on the virus, but stressed that any measures it takes should be carried out in accordance with human rights standards.

BY KWON HYE-RIM, SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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