Military deleted files about North's murder of fisheries official
Classified military intelligence related to North Korea's killing of a South Korean fisheries official in September 2020 was deleted by order of military authorities, a government official told the JoongAng Ilbo over the weekend.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said that 40 original files containing information on the killing, which was gathered through monitoring of North Korean military communications by the South Korean military’s Yellow Sea surveillance unit, were erased in September 2020, the same month the murder occurred.
South Korean military intelligence operates a specialized command center to analyze North Korean communications, as well as a surveillance unit in an area close to the Northern Limit Line, the de facto inter-Korean boundary in the Yellow Sea, to monitor such communications.
According to the military official, the surveillance unit intercepted North Korean military communications detailing how Lee Dae-jun, a fisheries official who disappeared while on duty near South Korean-controlled Yeonpyeong Island, was shot dead and his body burned by North Korean soldiers on Sept 22, 2020.
The 40 deleted South Korean military intelligence files detailing the events of Lee’s capture and gruesome death contained a total of seven hours of recordings of North Korean military communications.
Officials who served in the administration of former President Moon Jae-in are under suspicion of directing government agencies to frame Lee’s case as a botched northbound defection in order to maintain smooth relations with Pyongyang.
At the time of Lee’s death, authorities in Seoul said that North Korean soldiers burned his body out of fear of Covid-19 infection.
Although the Coast Guard released a report shortly after Lee’s murder that concluded he was trying to defect North to escape a large gambling debt, that finding was disavowed by the Defense Ministry and Coast Guard last month, when both admitted at a joint press conference that there was no evidence that Lee intended to defect at the time of his disappearance.
The fallout from the reversal continued Wednesday, when the National Intelligence Service said it filed a criminal complaint against Park Jie-won, the agency’s chief from 2020 to 2022, for allegedly deleting intelligence reports on the fisheries official’s killing without authorization.
If true, the destruction of classified information on the murder gathered by the South Korean military would add fuel to suspicions of a cover-up.
“The deletion of the original intercepts occurred around the time that all military secrets contained in the Military Information Management System (MIMS) were taken down,” said a government official who also spoke to the JoongAng Ilbo on condition of anonymity. He did not provide a reason as to why sensitive information was taken offline.
The 40 intelligence files disappeared from MIMS after two National Security Council meetings were held at the Blue House at 1 a.m. and 10 a.m. on September 23, the day after Lee's murder.
A military official who spoke to the JoongAng Ilbo said it was unusual that original intercepts of North Korean military communications would be deleted so soon after they were gathered.
“Original files of information gathered through surveillance have a [mandatory] retention period because local surveillance units often refer to earlier data,” he said.
“It is very rare to delete [such files] early in violation of this rule,” he added.
BY LEE CHUL-JAE, MICHAEL LEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]