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[Editorial] Rash deportation

Suspicions raised by expulsion of NK fishermen suspected of killing colleagues on boat

Many suspicions have been raised by the recent deportation of two North Korean fishermen suspected of killing 16 other crew members on their boat and then fleeing south.

Questions concern whether the government tried to deport them secretly, how the two committed such ghoulish mass murder on an apparently small wooden boat, whether deportation was the proper step and if the investigation of the murders was sufficient. Also, problems were revealed in the military discipline and line of command.

The deportation was mistakenly made known to the public as a photojournalist took a picture of a text message on the mobile phone of a Cheong Wa Dae official who was attending a session in the National Assembly. The message said two North Korean fishermen were scheduled to be deported to the North soon through the border village of Panmunjom.

Then the Unification Ministry called a news conference to explain the deportation. The ministry said it had planned to disclose related situations shortly after banishing the North Koreans, but if the camera had not captured the text message by chance, it’s hard to know how long the deportation may have been hidden from the public.

Given that the expulsion of North Koreans is an unprecedented issue requiring prudence, the government should have let the people know early and immediately. Information on North Korea should not be the exclusive property of the government.

Considering North Korean defectors are a sore point in relations between South and North Korea and that President Moon Jae-in’s administration has tried to appease the North for the goal of close inter-Korean ties, this incident raises suspicions the government may have tried to expel them quickly to meet Pyongyang’s demands.

The text message was sent by a lieutenant colonel of the South Korean guard unit at the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom, directly to the mobile phone of Kim You-geun, deputy director of Cheong Wa Dae’s National Security Office.

But Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo told lawmakers he had not known the deportation was happening until he heard a news report on the message. Jeong was in the dark about what the Unification Ministry and Cheong Wa Dae knew. An aspect of the crumbled military chain of command was revealed. A thorough investigation and stern punishment of those found responsible are needed.

The ministry says the intent of the North Korean fishermen to defect to the South was unclear, but in spite of that, the ministry seems to have rushed to kick them out. It took just six days for the government to capture the boat for trespassing the South Korean waters, question the fishermen, investigate their alleged crime, notify the North of its decision to deport them and hand them over.

The ministry said that it deported them because of their heinous crime, among other things. However, the government reportedly did not authenticate what it says were bloodstains on the boat on fears the North could complain of evidence contamination. Investigations were conducted passively and unconscientiously. It is doubtful whether the government investigated anything else in earnest aside from eliciting their confessions.

From a standpoint of common sense, their confession to killing 16 colleagues in conspiracy with another crew member is not readily understandable. The wooden boat, which was returned to the North, was about 15 meters long and looked too cramped to accommodate 19 people. Many suspicions regarding the murder case itself remain.

Even if their confession is convincing, there was no need to banish them so hastily. The government would have done well to take time to follow domestic judicial procedures. Under the Constitution, North Korean residents should be treated as South Koreans if they express their intent to defect to the South. And domestic judicial procedures apply to them.

To defectors from North Korea, being sent back means indescribable torture or execution. If the two North Koreans did not want to return to their country for fear of their lives, expelling them is problematic and condemnation in light of human rights is unavoidable.

If the government had disclosed its capture of the North Korean boat to the media from the beginning, taken proper judicial procedures and explained its decision beforehand, it could have prevented controversies to a considerable extent.

Now that the South has deported the North Koreans back considering them as murder suspects, what can Seoul say then if Pyongyang demands the return of future defectors, arguing they committed crimes there? Even now, North Korea often claims its citizens are held against their will in the South. Will the government surreptitiously meet the demands? The government was rash and seems to have gone too far.