Defense, unification ministries contradict lawmaker's claims about fishermen's repatriation
The truth behind the previous administration's repatriation of two North Korean fishermen in 2019 became even murkier on Tuesday as Seoul's defense and unification ministries partially contradicted claims made by the ruling People Power Party (PPP) concerning the incident.
The pair, who crossed into South Korean waters in the East Sea on Nov. 2, 2019, were forcibly sent back to the North five days later after former President Moon Jae-in’s government concluded they had murdered 16 fellow crew members before fleeing to the South.
Speaking on a Monday radio show just before the hearing, PPP lawmaker Ha Tae-keung repeated allegations that the Moon administration did not seek approval from the United Nations Command (UNC) to return the two fishermen via the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom, the southern side of which is administered by the UNC under the terms of the Korean War armistice.
An official who spoke to the JoongAng Ilbo on condition of anonymity last week said that the South Korean military opened checkpoints under the UNC’s control to repatriate the two men despite the UNC’s objections.
Those claims were contradicted by Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup and Unification Minister Kwon Young-se, both of whom said at the National Assembly on Monday that the UNC granted South Korean officials entry into Panmunjom to escort civilians back North.
But both ministries issued clarifications on Tuesday that the UNC approved South Korean officials’ use of Panmunjom for the repatriation process without realizing it was against the fishermen’s will.
At a press briefing on Tuesday, Defense Ministry vice spokesman Moon Hong-sik explained, “Approving entry into Panmunjom and approving forced repatriations are two different things.”
According to the spokesman, the Blue House National Security Office (NSO) at the time requested that the South Korean military escort the two fishermen back to the North, but the Defense Ministry conferred with the UNC before deciding military involvement was inappropriate as the pair were civilians.
Moon said that the Unification Ministry subsequently requested permission from the UNC for its officials to enter Panmunjom to escort civilians returning to the North, which the UNC granted.
“The Unification Ministry is the government department that took charge of [the fishermen’s] repatriation and obtained approval from the UNC [to use Panmunjom],” the spokesman said.
In an interview with CBS Radio on Tuesday, Unification Minister Kwon said that the UNC was unaware that the civilians returning to the North via Panmunjom were being repatriated against their will, and that the UNC lodged a strong complaint with the ministry.
“The UNC was not aware that the repatriation was forced,” Kwon said, adding that the Unification Ministry’s request to the UNC “only specified in a neutral way the number of individuals returning North and how many security officials would be escorting them.”
The unification minister also said that UNC officials present during the repatriation were taken aback by the means by which South Korean officials had subdued the fishermen before they were handed over to the North.
“They were shocked to see [the fishermen] blindfolded and bound with rope,” he said, adding those restraints “were removed immediately after the UNC strongly protested.”
Kwon added that relations between the Unification Ministry and the UNC were rocky for a time following the incident, citing unofficial comments made by ministry employees.
On Friday, Kwon also contradicted an earlier PPP claim about the fishermen.
Although PPP lawmaker Han Ki-ho said Wednesday the fishermen were framed as murderers by Pyongyang because they were hired to help people flee the North by sea, Kwon said in a radio interview on Friday there was a “high likelihood” that the pair had committed murder before fleeing to the South.
The two men’s alleged crimes have featured as a key point of contention in the controversy over their repatriation.
Former Moon administration officials have repeatedly described the pair as “vicious criminals” who were not bona fide defectors and posed an unacceptable risk to South Korean society.
Meanwhile, critics allege the fishermen’s crimes were fabricated by the North to get them back, and that their guilt was accepted unquestioningly by Seoul in order to maintain good relations with Pyongyang.
BY MICHAEL LEE [email@example.com]