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Government admits failure over N.Korean boat incident, denies cover-up

Top military chiefs reprimanded, an Army commander removed from post

The government on Wednesday admitted to security failure, but rejected the accusation that it attempted to downplay the incident in which a North Korean boat arrived at a South Korea seaport undetected.

Announcing the result of a joint government investigation, the government said it reprimanded top military chiefs and dismissed an Army commander who was in charge of the surveillance operation in the coastal area where the incident occurred.

Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo (Yonhap)
Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo (Yonhap)

A small wooden boat carrying four North Koreans was found to have crossed the Northern Limit Line in the East Sea undetected, reaching a port in South Korea on June 15. Concerns were raised over the country’s maritime security capability, as the South Korean port is located some 130 kilometers from the de facto maritime border.

Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo apologized on Wednesday for the second time over the incident, but denied that the government attempted to downplay the security failure.

“Our military failed to properly detect and guard (the seas) when a small wooden North Korean boat crossed the NLL to reach Samcheok Port. Also, we were not able to properly explain the situation to people at the time. As the defense minister, I feel deeply responsible and apologize,” Jeong said at the press conference announcing the results of a joint government investigation of the incident.

“The failure of the security operation is a fault that cannot be tolerated under any circumstances. For that, we will strictly discipline those responsible, according to the laws and regulations,” Jeong said.

Jeong also said that the military will strengthen the security operation system to make sure that such incidents do not occur again.

The ministry said it issued a stern warning to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Park Han-ki and commanders of the Ground Operations Command and Fleet Command.

It also said it dismissed the commander general of the Army’s 8th Corps that is in charge of guarding the eastern coastal area, and referred the commanders of the Army’s 23rd Division and the Navy’s 1st Fleet to the disciplinary committee.

A team of 30 officials from the concerned entities, including the National Intelligence Service and Defense Ministry, began the joint investigation on June 20.

In two closed-door press briefings on June 17 and 19, the Joint Chiefs of Staff backtracked its statement that the North Korean boat had been found “near” Samcheok Port and that the boat had drifted down the sea.

The North Koreans drove the boat southward and tied it along a breakwater of the Samcheok Port. Two of the four North Koreans came on land and spoke with South Korean civilians.

“We only considered the security aspect and used the term ‘nearby’ that is often used by the military and fell short of public expectations,” said Choi Byung-hwan, first vice minister of the Office for Government Policy Coordination, reading from a prepared statement.

Choi also said that the military admitted that its earlier explanation that the surveillance operations had been conducted “normally” was inappropriate, as they ultimately failed to detect and stop the North Korean boat before it reached South Korea.

Another allegation of government attempt to downplay the incident involved a Blue House official who was found to have attended two closed-door press meetings at the Defense Ministry. Choi confirmed that the Blue House official had been present at the press meeting to check whether the reporters were fully comprehending the situation.

By Jo He-rim (