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Should Seoul request repatriation of defector accused of sexual assault?

The photo taken on Tuesday shows a drain that runs under barbed wire fences in Ganghwa Island, west of Seoul, which may have been used by a North Korean defector to cross the border and return home. (Yonhap)
The photo taken on Tuesday shows a drain that runs under barbed wire fences in Ganghwa Island, west of Seoul, which may have been used by a North Korean defector to cross the border and return home. (Yonhap)

Since the revelation that a North Korean defector who fled back across the border was facing sexual assault charges in South Korea, there have been growing calls for Seoul to seek his extradition so he can face prosecution here.

There is no formal extradition agreement between Seoul and Pyongyang to force the return of the 24-year-old man, identified by the surname Kim.

But some critics argue that Seoul should issue the request, citing an incident in November when Seoul deported two North Korean fishermen to the communist nation, which suspected them of killing 15 of their fellow crew members before fleeing to South Korean waters.

The two North Koreans had expressed a desire to defect, but Seoul declined on the grounds that they were “heinous criminals.”

“Recently, South Korea has deported North Koreans who crossed over to the South because they had committed crimes,” Lim Tae-hoon, director of the Center for Military Human Rights Korea, said on a radio program, referring to the fishermen. “If North Korea is a normal nation, it should acknowledge the need for extradition.”

In response, the Unification Ministry said it would decide after a “comprehensive review.”

“As the relevant institutions are currently conducting detailed investigations, we will decide after a comprehensive review of the results of the examination, inter-Korean relations and previous measures,” ministry spokesperson Yoh Sang-key said Wednesday in a regular briefing.

Observers, however, say it is unlikely that the communist regime would send the man back. In the past, there were cases when North Korea returned South Koreans on humanitarian grounds. But considering that Kim was originally a North Korean citizen -- the North calls him a “runaway” -- it is more plausible that the North might use him for propaganda purposes.

The defector’s return home became known here Sunday, when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said a “runaway” had returned to his home in the border city of Kaesong on July 19 with symptoms of the coronavirus. South Korean health officials said it was unlikely that Kim had COVID-19, as he had no links to any confirmed patients here.

The Seoul government said the defector, who became a South Korean citizen upon arriving here in 2017, appears to have crawled through a drainage ditch under barbed-wire fences and swum to the North, evading the South’s border guards.

The police said Kim was under police investigation without physical detention over rape allegations. The alleged victim was also a defector, and the crime is alleged to have taken place last month at Kim’s home in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province.

Kim had denied the accusations, saying he was drunk and could not remember the incident, but police continued with the probe after the National Forensic Service found DNA evidence.

Police did not file for an arrest warrant until July 19, when one of Kim’s acquaintances reported to police that Kim had left threatening messages concerning the woman and mentioned plans to flee to the North. A warrant for Kim’s arrest was issued two days later, after he had already fled.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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