Government under fire over suspected attempts to play down NK boat incident

By Jo He-rim

Presidential aide’s presence at press briefings fuels speculation that Blue House is keeping tabs on Defense Ministry

  • Published : Jun 21, 2019 - 16:18
  • Updated : Jun 21, 2019 - 16:18

Controversy over an incident involving a North Korean boat has continued following the revelation that a Cheong Wa Dae official attended closed-door press briefings at the Ministry of National Defense.

Both Cheong Wa Dae and the Defense Ministry have been under fire over suspicions that attempts were made to play down the incident in which the military failed to detect a North Korean boat that crossed the inter-Korean maritime border and reached a coastal city in South Korea on Saturday. 

Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo apologizes Wednesday over the military's failure to detect the North Korean boat that crossed the de facto maritime border to arrive on Samcheok Port, Gangwon Province on Sunday.

A Navy captain working at the National Security Office under Cheong Wa Dae attended the closed-door press briefings on Monday and Wednesday, during which the ministry explained the incident to reporters.

Such press conferences usually involve related ministry officials and reporters who have been granted access in order for the ministry to provide information on ongoing issues.

Therefore, the presence of the Cheong Wa Dae official has raised suspicions that the presidential office had sought to control what information was disclosed to the public.

On Friday, Cheong Wa Dae denied that the presidential office had consulted with the Defense Ministry on the scope of information it was to reveal to reporters.

“An official did attend the press conferences, but it was only to get a glimpse of the public sentiment,” an official at the presidential office said.

“We were ‘lightly’ informed on the agenda of the press meetings, but we do not order what to and what not to say (to the Defense Ministry).”

The presidential office and the Defense Ministry have admitted to mistakes in the developments that led to the North Korean boat landing on the east coast of South Korea, but they have denied attempts to play down the incident.

Suspicions were sparked as the Joint Chiefs of Staff had backtracked its earlier statement that the North Korean boat had been found near Samcheok port and that the boat had drifted down the sea.

During the press briefing Monday, the military said surveillance operations had been conducted normally, but that factors such as the weather as well as the size and material of the boat had made it difficult for the military to spot it.

A ministry official also said the boat would have been detected if it had not drifted and had been moving faster.

But the JCS said Wednesday that the boat had actually been found tied alongside a breakwater and that two of four North Koreans on board had come on land, after news reports emerged. The North Koreans had even asked a South Korean civilian if they could borrow a phone.

Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo apologized Wednesday for the military’s failure to detect the boat that was in South Korean waters for days.

The boat was also confirmed to have used its engine to sail through the sea, contrary to the initial claim that it had drifted to the port city.

The Defense Ministry has admitted its mistakes and apologized for causing controversy, though it continued to deny attempts to down play the incident.

Cheong Wa Dae, the Ministry of Defense and the National Intelligence Agency were all informed about the North Korean boat 16 minutes after it was first reported to police by a South Korean civilian on the Saturday morning.

By Jo He-rim (