A North Korean defector is waging a lonely legal battle against South Korean authorities over the alleged disappearance of his relatives in his communist homeland, following an unwanted disclosure of his identity in the South.
The battle started two years after Lee Kwang-su arrived in the South along with his wife, two children and a friend aboard a small barge across the eastern sea border in 2006.
Lee claimed that he had planned to go to Japan and seek political asylum at the U.S. embassy there, but the boat drifted toward the South due to bad weather.
He said he repeatedly asked South Korean investigators not to make public their arrival and their personal information for fear of reprisals of their relatives in North Korea.
But personal information was quickly leaked to the media during questioning, which Lee claimed led to the disappearance of his 22 relatives in North Korea.
“They were sent to a political prison camp where they would have been condemned to death,” Lee said.
In another attempt to win asylum in the United States, he traveled to Britain in 2007 and applied for asylum to an EU human rights body through a lawyer before being forcefully repatriated to Seoul a year later.
North Koreans fleeing their homeland can seek asylum in South Korea and other foreign countries, but once they become South Korean citizens, they are not eligible to seek refuge in foreign countries, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry handling inter-Korean affairs.
Still, he finally arrived in the United States through Canada in 2008 and won asylum. He declined to elaborate why he wants to settle in the United States.
South Korea is home to more than 21,000 North Koreans who fled hunger and political oppression, but many of them fail to get decent jobs and struggle with economic difficulties.
In 2008, Lee filed a suit with a Seoul district court against the South Korean government, arguing that leaked personal information cost the lives of his relatives and demanded 1.15 billion won as compensation.
In October, a Seoul central district court recognized the fact South Korean officials made pubic Lee’s personal information without Lee’s consent, but did not accept Lee’s claims that his relatives went missing, citing a lack of evidence.
North Korean defectors in the South claim that North Korea harshly punishes relatives of defectors and sends them to prisons.
But it is almost impossible to independently verify the claims due to lack of free access to the isolated country.
The court ruled that Lee was entitled to receive 35 million won, just 3 percent of what he demanded in the suit. Lee appealed the case and a Seoul high court is scheduled to issue a ruling on Thursday.
“I plan to take legal action in the United States unless the ruling is changed,” Lee said, without elaborating. (Yonhap News)