When human rights don’t count

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When human rights don’t count

Kim Jung-ha
The author is the directorof political news at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Countless heinous crimes have been committed in Korea, but few as ruthless and cruel as the mutiny on Pescamar No. 15. On Aug. 2, 1996, horrible mass murders took place on the 254-ton tuna-fishing vessel in the Pacific Ocean. At the time, the ship had a crew of eight Koreans including the captain, nine Indonesians and seven ethnic Koreans from China, often referred to as joseonjok in Korea.

Complaining that the joseonjok crew were inexperienced, the Korean crew members used violence against them, causing tensions between the two groups. In the middle of their fishing operation, the Korean captain of the ship decided to head ashore to get rid of the joseonjok crew for their lack of experience. Worried that they would not be paid, six of the joseonjok crew decided to seize the ship.

They lured the Korean members — including the captain and the boatswain — one after another, murdered them one at a time, and tossed their bodies overboard.

One joseonjok and three Indonesian crew who refused to participate in their gruesome murders were put into the ship’s refrigerator to be frozen to death. The perpetrators kept them there for five days and then tossed them overboard — still alive.

On the ship was an 18-year-old intern, who had been transferred from another ship to be evacuated for appendicitis. They also killed him.

The murderers killed 11 in total. As they didn’t know how to drive the ship, they kept one Korean navigator alive. Later, the navigator lured the perpetrators into the fish storage and locked them up, finally ending their brutal crimes.

In December 1996, the Busan District Court convicted all six joseonjok crew members and sentenced them to death. The punishments for five of the six — except for the main culprit Quan Zaiqian — were reduced to life prison terms by the Busan High Court in April the following year. Former President Moon Jae-in was their defense attorney during the appeals trial.

In a media interview in October 2011, Moon said, “Without realizing it, we tend to subtly despise or look down on them [the joseonjok]. The culprits of the slaughters on the Pescamar No. 15 should be treated warmly as ethnic Koreans, and I still stand by that belief.”

“Although the court handed down death penalties initially, Korea nearly abolished them in practice,” Moon said. “As Quan ended up serving life imprisonment [instead of capital punishment] with a special remission, my defense was successful.”
In the photos released by the Ministry of Unification last Tuesday, one of the two North Korean defectors vehemently resists their forced repatriation by the South Korean security officials across the demarcation line at Panmunjom in November 2019. [MINISTRY OF UNIFICATION]

The special remission for Quan was determined in December 2007, when Moon was serving as the presidential chief of staff for Roh Moo-hyun. There is a high possibility that Moon’s will was reflected in the decision.

It should be a heartwarming story about a human rights lawyer. But after becoming president, Moon assumed a completely different attitude to human rights. On Nov. 2, 2019, the Moon administration repatriated two North Korean fishermen, captured on the East Coast of Gangwon Province, against their will after only five days of interrogation. (Usually, such an interrogation lasts up to a couple of months.) The forced repatriations translated into an indirect handing down of death penalties to them.

“As they were suspects who killed 16 people [aboard their ship], we must not accept them as defectors,” the Democratic Party (DP) said, justifying the decision to send them back to North Korea. If the DP were a right wing party, it might say such a thing. But it is the party that came up with the slogan of “People First.”

In a civilized society, the government cannot sentence a person to a certain death without a trial or a public discussion — even if they are vicious murderers. In fact, none of the joseonjok crew members who killed 11 people on the ship was executed. Instead, they have been living just fine for 26 years in a prison operated on South Korean taxpayers’ money.

Moreover, we have no accurate evidence to confirm the suspicion that the two North Korean fishermen really killed 16 colleagues on their ship. Even if they had, we cannot know what really happened and why.

Under international law, the principle of non-refoulement guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face cruel and inhuman punishment or other irreparable harm. When their blindfolds were taken off at Panmunjom, the North Korean fishermen resisted fiercely with an impending sense of death.

From the beginning, the Moon administration wanted to send them home secretly. It must have felt uncomfortable about it. It is hard to believe that the president had not endorsed an incident of this magnitude. We are really curious why the former human rights lawyer who had been extremely compassionate to the murderers of Pescamar No. 15 was so cold to the two fishermen from North Korea.
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