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Brother claims ruling party figures pressured family to accept slain official tried to defect

Lee Rae-jin, the brother of slain fisheries official, speaks to The Korea Herald on Tuesday at his office in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Lee Rae-jin, the brother of slain fisheries official, speaks to The Korea Herald on Tuesday at his office in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and an ex-naval officer pushed for the family of a fisheries official killed by North Korea to admit that the deceased was attempting to defect to the North, the official’s brother claims.

The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries official went missing during a patrol on Sept. 21, 2020, and was shot dead and set ablaze at sea by North Korean troops the following day. He is the first South Korean civilian to die at the hands of the North in 12 years.

Lee Rae-jin, 56, the older brother of the deceased official, told The Korea Herald on Tuesday morning that four Democratic Party figures came to visit him at his office in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, at short notice after a conference with foreign press on Sept. 29, 2020.

At the press conference, Lee rejected the government’s allegations that his brother was killed in the process of attempting to defect to the North.

Lee said six Democratic Party figures reached out to him following the press conference, saying they would like to meet him. He accepted the invitation and found four -- three of whom are lawmakers and one a former high-ranking naval officer -- waiting outside his office when he came back from the conference in Seoul. One of the lawmakers and the ex-naval officer now hold Cabinet posts.

Lee said that during the meeting they tried to convince him that his brother was trying to defect to the North.

“When I asked on what grounds, they told me party lawmakers on the defense committee had listened to some audio recording that included remarks that were suggestive of circumstances of a defection, without saying what those were,” he said.

“Then I asked if it was my brother who said the things that they linked to a supposed defection. They said it wasn’t, so I told them I cannot accept that as evidence of a defection.”

He added that his request to listen to the recording was denied on grounds that it was confidential. 

He said that at the same meeting they also tried to offer the family compensation.

“One of them spoke of setting up some sort of a fund. That person visited me a couple of times more after that meeting, trying to convince me to see that it was a defection,” he said.

He said he considered the talk of compensation that came up that day to be “a gesture intended to silence.” “I gave so many interviews and I was on the news all over the country,” he said.

“They mentioned my nephews, who are still young. I said we didn’t care much about the money. We wanted the truth about what happened.”

Lee said his family has not received any compensation for his brother’s death. He said the death benefits from an insurance program for fisheries officials were deposited to his brother’s wife’s account on Sept. 31 of last year, the day before parliamentary questioning of ministries.

He said it did not surprise him they would say his brother was an attempted defector.

“The ruling party lawmakers were already openly and publicly saying that my brother had intentions of defection,” he said.

As for why he did not speak up then about the meeting, he said he knew he “needed to be on good terms with the ruling party and the administration in office.”

“I knew not to make them turn their backs on me, and I guess I had hoped that they would help my family get to the truth,” he said.

“But even as the Moon administration is about to exit, my family is still asking the same questions that we’ve been asking since we lost him. They’re trying to conceal the information on my brother’s case by archiving it as presidential records.”

As proof of the meeting having taken place, Lee presented the business cards of two of the lawmakers and the ex-naval officer, the three of whom were on the Democratic Party task force for the fisheries official’s case. One lawmaker of the city Lee is a constituent of did not give him a card, he said.

Lee said he has not been able to reach the lawmakers or the official he met with that day for a long time.

In a phone call with The Korea Herald on Tuesday evening, one of the lawmakers who was present at the meeting denied “any attempts at persuasion or offering of compensation.”

Asked if there were any efforts to convince him that it was a defection, the lawmaker replied, “I have no recollection of any mention of that kind at all.”

“We were definitely not trying to force him in any way, because we knew how he felt about the situation. He was finding it hard to accept the government announcements,” he said.

“I don’t think there was any discussion of compensation. It’s just that the official had a son, so we talked about whether there was a way his son could receive a scholarship or aid. We talked about how the local government should be offering him a scholarship.”

He stressed that the issue of a scholarship was not discussed as a form of compensation.

He added that he remembers Lee telling them that he wished to meet someone from the government, and that they arranged a meeting with then-Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha.

“To my knowledge there was no such talk (of compensation or defection),” he said. “I just met him once that day. I’m kind of baffled.”

The ex-military official, now head of a Cabinet office, also denied such discussion having taken place.

After initially denying having met Lee in person, he said he did meet him except in the company of others.

“I wouldn’t have discussed those things (with him) because I’m not in the position to. If I told him anything it was words of condolences,” he said in a phone call with The Korea Herald on Wednesday morning.

The other two present at the meeting -- two lawmakers, one of whom also holds a Cabinet post -- did not respond to The Korea Herald’s requests for comments.

The Lee family is currently fighting the government’s characterization of the case as a defection. In a court battle over the release of information surrounding the killing, the family won in a first trial held in November last year.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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