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Family of South Korean man killed by North Korea slams Moon admin’s defection claims

The family of the South Korean official who was shot dead by North Korean troops in 2020 held a tearful news conference on Friday at the Seoul Bar Association building in Seocho, the capital city’s central eastern district. From left, attorney-at-law Kim Ki-yun, the official’s older brother Lee Rae-jin, and his widowed wife Kwon Young-mi. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
The family of the South Korean official who was shot dead by North Korean troops in 2020 held a tearful news conference on Friday at the Seoul Bar Association building in Seocho, the capital city’s central eastern district. From left, attorney-at-law Kim Ki-yun, the official’s older brother Lee Rae-jin, and his widowed wife Kwon Young-mi. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

The family of the South Korean man who was shot dead in 2020 by North Korean troops at sea on Friday accused the preceding Moon Jae-in administration and the then-ruling Democratic Party of Korea of “insisting without evidence” that the deceased had tried to defect to the North.

A day earlier, the Coast Guard and the Ministry of Defense corrected their earlier determination that Lee Dae-jun, a Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries official, sought a North Korea defection. The maritime and military authorities said they found no such evidence.

At a news conference, the official’s older brother, Lee Rae-jin, said he was “unsure” how he should feel about Thursday’s announcement.

“(The authorities) completely altered their stance about 22 months since my brother was ruthlessly murdered,” he said.

Lee said the Moon administration “hasn’t done anything (for the family).” “Our family is barred from knowing how he died, and what the government has or hasn’t done to protect him in his last hours,” he said.

Family breaks silence

Speaking at the news conference, the widowed wife of the official, Kwon Young-mi, said she was “incredibly disheartened and angered” by the Democratic Party lawmakers continuing to claim that it was a defection.

The opposition Rep. Youn Kun-young said in a statement issued shortly after the Coast Guard’s announcement that the maritime authorities were “warping the facts.” “Our (Moon) administration carried out investigations and scrutinized intelligence from multiple angles before announcing that it appears to be a defection,” the statement said.

On breaking her silence, she said, “I will not stand by and let my husband, the father of our two children, be branded a defector without evidence. I won’t stay silent any longer and let a baseless accusation have my children live in shame.”

She went on, “For a long time I didn’t know what to do, and I was afraid. But now, I feel safe about speaking up because the government is supportive.”

During the news conference she shared a letter her son wrote to Yoon.

In the letter, the 20-year-old said he often felt like he had to hide the death of his father out of fear that people would point fingers at him. “My father is not a defector. Thanks to you Mr. President, now I can tell the world that my father is not a defector,” he said.

Over last year’s Chuseok holiday she said she received a phone call from then-presidential candidate Yoon, who promised her that if he is elected, he would help the family get to the bottom of the case.

“I would like to ask the Democratic Party to give us an acceptable explanation, and evidence to believe that my husband died a defector,” she said. “My husband loved his country and serving the people of this country as a government worker.”

She said now that the defection scenario has been refuted, the family was hoping he would be recognized as having died in the line of duty.

Witnesses rejected possibility of defection

The Coast Guard sent some of the records from its preliminary investigation to the Lee family on Thursday, including interviews of seven of the official’s colleagues who were on the same patrol vessel where he was last sighted. The interviews were released to the press at Friday’s news conference.

According to the previously unreleased interviews, the seven vessel workers, all of whom have maritime expertise, replied that they did not think Lee was defecting to North Korea.

“When I saw in the news that it was a defection, I was taken aback because what they were describing was ridiculous,” read one of the interview excerpts.

Another excerpt read, “No, I do not think that he was defecting to North Korea at all.”

“If that was the case, he would have taken his waterproof clothes with him, but he didn’t. Suicide may be a more plausible explanation than defection, seeing that he left his waterproof clothes behind going into the cold sea waters,” it said.

In the excerpt, one of Lee’s colleagues also noted that in the hours he was missing, the tide was flowing eastward. “In my opinion it’s a bit of a stretch to think he swam against the currents to make his way to the North.”

All of the interviewees, who worked closely with Lee, said they have never heard him discuss North Korea or politics.

The family’s lawyer, Kim Ki-yun, said he finds it “seriously problematic” that the Coast Guard kept the interviews from public knowledge in its prior announcements.

“Accounts from witnesses who were at the scene are one of the significant pieces of evidence, and yet they were kept under wraps before this day,” he said. He questioned if some records were left out because they did not fit the “predetermined conclusion of a defection.”

Lee said within hours of his brother’s death, the Incheon Coast Guard was already asking him about the likelihood of a defection. “That was the extent of my early phone calls with the Coast Guard. They didn’t ask about much else,” he said.

‘Cheong Wa Dae guidelines’

In Thursday’s press release following the Coast Guard’s news conference, the Ministry of Defense revealed that on Sept. 27, 2020, it received certain “guidelines” from Cheong Wa Dae’s Office of National Security on how to shape responses to “key issues” surrounding the case.

In the release, the ministry apologized for “causing confusion to the public” with its defection announcement, saying that “upon revisiting the findings from the investigation, there is no evidence that the missing official intended to defect to North Korea.”

Kim said legal action might be taken against Suh Hoon, who served as the Office of National Security’s director for Moon from July 2020 to May 2022, for possibly interfering with execution of official duties.

“I believe that it’s important to find out what the guidelines were, and if they’d played a role in the case described as a defection,” he said.

Initial handling under scrutiny

The family is also considering suing Moon, Kim said, “if that’s what it takes for the records to be released.”

Under the former president, Cheong Wa Dae appealed the court decision ordering the release of records requested by the family. Then toward the end of the administration the records were designated as Moon’s presidential archive materials, making them classified for as long as 15 to 30 years. 

Kim said he planned on meeting with the leadership of the Democratic Party, which controls the majority of the parliament, for their cooperation in granting family access to the records. Approval from more than two-thirds of the parliament can unlock the archived records.

Fresh efforts are being pursued to determine if the initial investigations were done properly.

The Board of Audit and Inspection said Friday afternoon it would be looking into the Coast Guard and other agencies’ handling of the investigation. The ruling People Power Party is also launching a task force to set out on a fact-finding mission. 

“The public deserves to know who was behind this mischaracterization, and for what purpose,” the party said in a statement Thursday.

By Kim Arin (
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