Yoon Suk-yeol may reopen fishermen's repatriation case from 2019
Last week, his administration reopened a case of a South Korean fisheries official killed by North Korean soldiers in the Yellow Sea in 2020. The Moon Jae-in administration insisted he was trying to defect, which the Defense Ministry and Coast Guard admitted last Thursday was not true.
When asked Tuesday morning whether his administration plans to launch an investigation into the 2019 repatriations, Yoon told reporters, "We're still looking into it, but haven't people raised many questions about it in the past?"
In early November 2019, two North Korean fishermen in their 20s captured near the eastern inter-Korean sea border by South Korean authorities were sent back to the North even though they asked to defect. It was the first time North Koreans were forcibly repatriated by the South Korean government.
An inter-agency investigation concluded that the two sailors killed the captain of their squid boat and 15 fellow crew members in the East Sea. They were considered threats to national security and treated as criminals, and handed back to the North at the inter-Korean border blindfolded and tied up with rope.
The Moon government determined that the fishermen were not subject to the North Korean Refugees Protection and Settlement Support Act as they had committed the criminal act of murdering 16 shipmates and fleeing.
Opposition lawmakers pointed out that the fishermen had expressed the wish to defect and were forcibly repatriated, and questioned whether this was to avoid annoying Pyongyang and disrupting the Moon's government engagement of the regime. The repatriation provoked criticism from defector groups in the South and international human rights organizations.
Yoon told reporters Tuesday, "Those who enter our country should be regarded as citizens of the Republic of Korea under our Constitution, and many people found it odd and raised questions about the fact that they were repatriated to the North."
He added that the case is being "looked into" but he has yet to "receive a detailed report."
Earlier, Yoon's People Power Party (PPP) said that it plans to launch an investigation into the forced repatriation.
On Monday, Kweon Seong-dong, floor leader of the PPP, said in a party supreme council meeting, "It is an unconstitutional act for our government to forcibly repatriate them to North Korea, tying them up and blindfolding them despite the expression of their intent to defect."
At the time, a lawyer's group filed a request for information from the head of the Blue House National Security Office (NSO) and chief of the National Police Agency over the repatriations but eventually lost because it was a national security issue.
If Yoon makes a decision, it is possible that the fishermen's letter of intent to defect or the statement submitted by the investigative agency on the incident may be made public. These materials are not presidential records.
An investigation into the North Korean fishermen's repatriation could intensify the Yoon administration's efforts to release records from the Moon government.
Last week, it decided to release further information on the case of the South Korean fisheries official, Lee Dae-jun, who was shot dead and burned by North Korean soldiers in the Yellow Sea on Sept. 22, 2020. At the time, military authorities under the Moon administration said Lee had been killed in the process of "voluntarily" attempting to defect to North Korea to escape a gambling debt. It said that the North Koreans seemed to have killed him out of fear of Covid-19 infection.
Last Thursday, the Defense Ministry and Coast Guard made a public apology and admitted that there was no evidence that Lee had been trying to defect.
However, further information that could explain the circumstances of Lee's death hasn't been disclosed because many documents were designated presidential records, which are sealed for 15 years unless there is consensus by two-thirds of lawmakers.
On Monday, Yoon said that he could disclose more information on the death of the fisheries official, while the PPP on Tuesday launched a task force to reveal the truth through the release of sealed records.
The liberal Democratic Party (DP) responded by saying both ruling and opposition parties agreed on the conclusion that the fisheries official attempted to defect to the North. It pointed out that signals intelligence, or SIGINT, gathered through interception of signals, was reported to the parliamentary defense and intelligence committees at the time of the incident and called for the release of such committee records.
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]