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Ex-spy chief pushed to return two North Korean defectors as peace offering: prosecutors

By Kim Arin

Published : March 10, 2023 - 18:17

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Suh Hoon served as the director of the National Intelligence Service and then as the national security adviser for former President Moon Jae-in. (Yonhap) Suh Hoon served as the director of the National Intelligence Service and then as the national security adviser for former President Moon Jae-in. (Yonhap)

Former National Intelligence Service director Suh Hoon pushed to repatriate two North Korean men who attempted to defect to the South in a bid to restore ties with Pyongyang, according to Seoul prosecutors.

In an indictment released Thursday, prosecutors said that then-NIS director Suh ordered the two fishers from North Korea to be sent back, going against the policy that requires any decision to repatriate North Korean defectors to be backed by their intentions to return home.

Prosecutors found that Suh altered the initial reports produced by investigators so that key details such as the fact that the two North Koreans had stated their intentions to defect to South Korea, were removed.

Suh had also ordered the deletion of the investigators’ opinion that an investigation was necessary to ascertain whether the accusations that they had murdered their crew members to flee North Korea had substance, prosecutors added.

Prosecutors noted that the forceful repatriation coincided with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sending his condolences to Moon over the passing of the former South Korean president’s mother after months of chilly relations.

Moon’s office had planned to respond to Kim’s condolences, dated Oct. 30, 2019, with an invitation to the Association of Southeast Nations-South Korea summit in Busan held a month later on Nov. 25, 2019.

Prosecutors found that Suh and others indicted alongside him at the presidential office repatriated the North Korean fishers as a peace offering, and to possibly improve the chances of Kim agreeing to attend the Busan summit.

Noh Young-min and Chung Eui-yong – the presidential office’s chief of staff and national security adviser, respectively -- made the decision to forcibly return the two North Koreans at a National Security Council meeting held on Nov. 4, 2019 while Moon was not present. The former president was out of the country at the time on a trip to Thailand for the ASEAN Plus Three Summit.

The records of the NSC meeting revealed that the presidential office’s legal affairs secretary had said there was no legal basis for the North Koreans’ forced repatriation.

The internal communications exchanged between the intelligence authorities and investigators a day after the NSC meeting on Nov. 5, 2019, indicated that the repatriation was the presidential office’s call, and that they deliberately omitted the term “defection” from its reports.

On Nov. 7, 2019, the two North Koreans were escorted to the inter-Korean border while blindfolded and tied with ropes. They were handed over two North Korean state officials by South Korean special police forces.

Suh, Noh and Chung were sent to court on Feb. 28 after about eight months of investigation.