In the 2 1/2 months since the inauguration of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration in Seoul, relations between the former and present ruling powers of South Korea have turned from bad to worse, despite the new president’s assurance of “mutual cooperation.”
The National Assembly plenary and committee sessions, social media postings and YouTube interviews produce extreme words of criticism from the opposing ranks concerning most government policy announcements, while the new occupiers of high offices are looking for bad legacies of the bygone administration in various sectors, threatening dire legal consequences.
While a shift in power from the left to right does not bring a clear difference to all areas of government work, sensitive contacts with North Korea called for a close scrutiny by the new right-wing government to blame the former leftist ruling clique for its overly submissive attitude toward Pyongyang.
One issue at hand is an incident in 2019, in which two North Koreans who sought asylum in the South were sent back to the North in what was believed to be the then-Moon Jae-in administration’s effort to curry favor with Kim Jong-un. Another case from 2020 involved a South Korean fisheries official who was caught by North Korean guards while drifting in North Korean waters and savagely killed.
Both cases place the opposition Democratic Party of Korea on the defensive, because they indicate the past administration’s contradiction to the leftist cause of respect for human rights. But President Yoon and his aides seem obsessed with taking care of past improprieties amid the increasingly combative relations between the opposing political forces.
Regarding the first incident, Yoon’s officials assert that the North Korean fishermen were sent back for certain execution because of their alleged murders on their ship, despite the fact that they were legally under South Korean jurisdiction. Article 3 of the Constitution stipulates that “the territory of the Republic of Korea consists of the Korean Peninsula and its contiguous islands,” which automatically recognizes North Koreans as South Korean nationals. The Republic of Korea is South Korea’s official name.
A 16-metric-ton fishing boat appeared on the seaward border of the two Koreas on Nov. 2, 2019, being chased by a North Korean patrol boat. The South Korean Navy captured the boat with two men aboard, and turned them over to the custody of civilian authorities on South Korean soil. In subsequent questioning, they reportedly stated that they escaped to the South after killing as many as 16 colleagues during a dispute while at sea. Their repatriation therefore was a matter of choice between judicial idealism and making a pragmatic decision.
We don’t know if former President Moon wanted a news blackout of the repatriation of the two men, but he had ample reason to avoid a complication of relations with Pyongyang, because he was trying hard at that time to bring Kim Jong-un back to a direct dialogue after their summit talks in 2018. Moon is known to have sent a cable to Pyongyang, inviting Kim to attend an Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference together with him, on the day the two North Korean fishermen were sent back to the North.
The Unification Ministry in Seoul last week released pictures of the cruel scene of the two North Koreans’ repatriation at Panmunjom, revealing that the South Korean police used physical force to deliver the two men to the North as they resisted crossing the dividing line in the truce village. The same Unification Ministry in 2019 under a different minister and president had decided that these mass murder suspects did not deserve a life in the South.
Not surprisingly, former Unification Minister Kim Youn-cheol and former director of the National Intelligence Service Suh Hoon, who both were involved in the repatriation decision, went to the US shortly after Yoon’s election and have not returned home. Their exit could mean that they expected criminal procedures against them, although their fates will depend on whether they had acted on their own conscientious judgment or in accordance with Moon’s North Korea policy.
Regarding the South Korean fisheries official Lee Dae-jun, Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup last week said there was no sufficient evidence for an earlier South Korean military intelligence report that the official crossed the maritime border to take refuge in the North under pressure of heavy debts. The National Security Office and the Maritime Police similarly regretted that the authorities had caused deeper sorrow to the family of the dead official with their imprudent announcements.
It is interesting to see high-ranking officials make a series of apologies for inappropriate actions taken two or more years ago by the offices that they now represent. Nothing like this would have happened if there was no change of power. Truths have not been established yet concerning the alleged murders by the North Korean fishermen and the intent of the South Korean fisheries official, but the authorities are amending their official positions.
It is unjust to repatriate people who petitioned to take refuge in South Korea after a rushed investigation of a suspected mass murder. It is equally inexcusable for the authorities to terminate the case of a missing official with a hasty assumption of his motive. But after the passage of a few years’ time, the present authorities cannot make a final judgment without decisive evidence on hand.
A wide-ranging campaign is underway by officials appointed by the new president to discredit the past administration through the aforementioned cases. Justice should be done to redeem vile mistakes made by previous leaders, but the process should never be mixed with a political vendetta.
Winners of power look into the misdeeds of former office holders in order to rally support for the new regime and to eliminate and weaken future contenders. Corruption and abuse of power should be punished, but the current administration should stop making belated judgements on policy choices by the previous administration.
Those exalted people in the new administration need to remember that lost respect for the past office is likely to cause lost respect for the present office. To common citizens – whether they be on the right, left or center -- their government will stay on with them to collect taxes, to keep them safe from criminals and to protect them from external invasion.
When President Yoon understands this, he can expect his approval rate to go up in the days ahead.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald and former managing editor of The Korea Times. – Ed.