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[Editorial] Probe needed

Many wonder why Moon government rushed to repatriate N. Korean fishermen

The Yoon Suk-yeol administration is said to be considering an investigation into the previous administration’s forced repatriation of North Korean fishermen despite their intention to defect to South Korea.

President Yoon said Tuesday that many people wonder why the Moon Jae-in administration sent them back to North Korea, saying many questions have been raised. He said that calls for investigation are under review.

The repatriation incident exposed serious problems and sparked calls for a probe, but the Moon regime did not respond to the calls, citing that the incident concerned national security. It is reasonable to get to the truth of the incident, though belatedly, because it is a matter of South Korea’s sovereign power against North Korea.

In November 2019, two North Korean fishermen expressed their intentions to defect to the South after their boat had been captured in South Korean seas, but authorities returned them to the North through the truce village of Panmunjom, citing they had allegedly killed their colleagues in the boat.

The incident is the first case of the South Korean government repatriating North Korean residents by force. It must have stunned North Korean defectors.

The South learned by wiretapping North Korean communications that the fishermen had murdered their colleagues, and two days after their boat was captured, Seoul asked Pyongyang whether it would accept them if repatriated, even though the North did not demand repatriation first. The following day, the North expressed the intention to accept them.

The government reportedly mobilized an anti-terrorist unit, not the Red Cross, to take them to Panmunjom. They were blindfolded and tied with ropes. When their blindfolds were finally taken off near the military demarcation line in Panmunjom, the fishermen are said to have sunk to their knees after realizing they would be sent back to North Korea. Their handover occurred on Nov. 7, just five days after their boat was seized by South Korea. It is very likely that they were executed back in the North.

Their expulsion became known to the public after news media accidentally photographed a text message sent by a military officer stationed in Panmunjom to a national security official at the presidential office.

Coincidentally, on Nov. 5 when the government notified the North of its intention to return the fishermen, Moon sent a personal letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inviting him to the ASEAN-South Korea Commemorative Summit to be held in Busan on Nov. 25 and 26.

Many are wondering why the Moon government had to rush to repatriate them forcibly, secretly and swiftly. The Moon government cited that they were murderers, but the point of the issue is not whether they were brutal criminals or not, but the fact that the government gave up exercising its sovereignty in handling an inter-Korean incident.

The Constitution regards North Korean residents as South Korean people. No article in the Constitution stipulates North Koreans become exceptions if they are criminals. Furthermore, the fishermen are said to have expressed their intention to defect to the South.

The government did not examine their boat closely. It presumed that they were murderers only on the basis of overheard North Korean communication. Even if they had committed crimes, they should have been tried in a South Korean court and punished according to South Korean law. At that time, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said that the government did not regard them as South Koreans.

Obviously, repatriating them to the country where they would likely be executed violates not only domestic law, but also international conventions on human rights. It may have scared off North Koreans intent on defecting to the South.

In order to prevent the government from disregarding Koreans’ human rights again for the sake of “peace” with North Korea, a thorough probe is required. And those found responsible should be punished.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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