The response of President Moon Jae-in’s government to the killing of a South Korean civil servant by North Korean troops near the tense sea border last week has amplified criticism of its blind preoccupation with inter-Korean reconciliation.
The South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday that the 47-year-old official was shot to death and set on fire by the crew of a North Korean patrol boat Tuesday after drifting into the North’s waters across the western maritime border. He went missing the previous day while on board a fishery inspection vessel.
South Korean military authorities have been criticized for failing to prevent the killing, even though they were aware of the North Korean soldiers’ movements for six hours while the civil servant was still alive.
Explaining their inaction, military officials here said they did not think North Korea would go so far as to shoot him to death.
They should have sent a naval vessel to the sea border to prevent the official from coming into harm while in the North’s custody.
It was on Thursday evening that Moon issued a belated statement through his spokesman, saying the killing of the official was “shocking” and “very regrettable” and could not be tolerated for any reason. In the statement, he urged Pyongyang to take responsibility for the act.
But Moon is under growing pressure to account for his own actions during the two days after he was first informed that a civil servant had drifted into North Korean waters.
Opposition lawmakers and other critics say Moon neglected necessary action to save the official, suggesting he may not have wanted the case to overshadow his prerecorded video speech for the annual UN General Assembly, which was livestreamed here Wednesday.
In the address, he reiterated his earlier calls for a declaration ending the Korean War, saying this would pave the way for complete denuclearization and lasting peace on the peninsula.
In a separate 15-minute speech Friday at a ceremony for South Korea’s 72nd Armed Forces Day, Moon used the word “peace” six times but made no mention of North Korea, let alone the killing of the official.
On the same day, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un apologized for the killing in a notice sent to the South through the North’s United Front Department, the organ of its ruling Workers’ Party that handles inter-Korean affairs. Kim said he felt “sorry” for disappointing Moon and other South Koreans over what he called the “unsavory” incident.
Kim’s unusual move seemed intended to prevent the fallout from the killing of the South Korean official from spiraling out of control and preventing the Moon government from pursuing inter-Korean cooperation, even though Moon’s efforts fall short of Pyongyang’s expectations.
Seoul officials appeared eager to take Kim’s apology as an occasion to deflect criticism of the way they handled the incident and point to a supposed turnaround from the chilled atmosphere surrounding inter-Korean ties.
Unification Minister Lee In-young said during a parliamentary session that it was “very exceptional” for a North Korean leader to make a swift apology regarding a matter involving the South.
National Intelligence Service chief Park Jie-won, who conveyed the notice from Pyongyang to the presidential office, was quoted by parliamentary sources as saying during a closed-door meeting with lawmakers that his agency sees the deadly incident as “not something reported to and ordered by” Kim. The judgment contradicts views held by many experts, who say it is hard to believe the brutal act would have taken place without orders from the highest authority in the totalitarian regime.
Revealing the notice from the North, Suh Hoon, director of national security at Cheong Wa Dae, also disclosed the exchange of personal letters between Moon and Kim earlier this month, in which the two leaders expressed optimism over the recovery of inter-Korean ties through cooperation to overcome ongoing difficulties from the coronavirus outbreak and typhoon damage.
Critics now ask why the president and the intelligence chief did not try to use those channels with their counterparts in the North to ensure the safety of the South Korean official during those crucial hours.
Moon and his aides need to be cautioned against seeing what they want to see, a conciliatory gesture from the North, and rushing to take it as a chance to resume stalled cross-border dialogue.
During their meeting Saturday, members of the presidential council on national security made a judicious decision in demanding that North Korea carry out an additional investigation into the incident and agree to a joint probe if necessary. The North’s explanation, which was included in Friday’s notice to the South, differed from Seoul’s account in key respects.
Pyongyang’s response to Seoul’s demand is most likely to affirm what is already obvious -- that the Moon administration’s preoccupation with inter-Korean reconciliation is not reciprocal.