On November 7, 2019, the South Korean government forcefully repatriated two young North Korean escapees back to North Korea through Panmunjom against their will.
Liberty Korea Post has learned from its correspondents inside North Korea that the two fishermen have disappeared from KimChaek city, their hometown. The two fishermen and the boat captain hailed from KimChaek. Their whereabouts are unknown.
North Korea Central News Agency (KNCA) reported later that Moon had sent a personal letter to invite Kim to the Busan conference, confirming Moon’s plan. So, it stands to reason that the Moon government denied the defectors, even going so far to make the accusation that the two fishermen were murderers of 16 passengers of the squid boat.
The South Korean Constitution deems any North Korean defectors as South Korean citizens the moment they step inside South Korea. The men should have been afforded all the rights of a citizen, including the presumption of innocence and the right to trial. Further, the South Korean authorities disinfected and cleaned the squid boat inside out, destroying all the potential evidence of murder. As it was, the healthcare crew did not spot any bloodstains on the boat. Had the two men murdered the sixteen passengers by beating them with a hammer, there certainly would have been a lot of bloodstains.
Note that any defector associated with murder or serious crimes is excluded from legal protection. Also note that the squid boat is not large enough to hold sixteen passengers plus the two men and the captain.
According to an official at the city’s judicial department, to ask questions about the two fishermen was a very dangerous business. The official also said that the sixteen passengers on the boat were not KimChaek residents. They had come from all over, and there was no way to know anything about them. They did not even show up on investigative reports, and the State Security Agency most likely arrested them for interrogation and punishment.
On November 5, 2019, the Moon government notified its intention to repatriate the two fishermen to North Korea via the inter-Korea liaison office. North Korea expressed a willingness to accept the young men the next day. On the third day, the South Korean authorities blinded the men, tied them with rope, and handed them over to the North Korean side at Panmunjom.
The forceful repatriation alerted international human rights organizations who questioned the South Korean authorities about violating the international convention on torture in detention.
The spokesperson from the opposing party suggested that the Moon government was trying to please Kim Jong-un of North Korea. About this time, South Korean President Moon Jae-in was pursuing the idea of having Kim Jong-in attend the ASEAN conference taking place in Busan. The defection news would have spoiled any chance of Kim’s participation in the conference.
On December 17, 2019, Liberty Korea Post had posted an article clarifying that there was no murder case reported in KimChaek harbor based on the interviews of the local residents and officials. The news of an incident as serious as a murder case involving sixteen victims would have circulated around the port town many times. According to the Liberty Korea Post correspondents, there was no indication of such a murder case.
On December 20, 2019, the Ministry of Unification sent a letter threatening legal action against Liberty Korea Post unless it retracted and deleted the article. The Ministry followed up with telephone calls. Then the interim editor posted a retraction without consulting the reporter. The Ministry thanked the reporter and invited her to dinner. The reporter refused dinner.
Subsequently, the reporter stayed with the incident for five months and confirmed that the original article was correct. There was no murder case involving sixteen victims. The men suffered worse hardship in North Korea due to the false murder accusation by the South Korean authorities.
On January 28, 2020, Special Rapporteur Tomas Quintana of UNOHCHR (Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) said the South Korean government had responded to the letter he had sent to inquire about the repatriation of two fishermen to North Korea.
According to Korea Herald, “Seoul explained that while the two men later said they wanted to resettle in South Korea, authorities determined their intentions were insincere, considering the men were trying to flee even when the Navy fired warning shots to capture them, and those other men had attempted to take their lives.
The government added it was difficult to guarantee a fair trial, citing difficulties of obtaining evidence and a lack of support from North Korea. It also added that exercising jurisdiction over North Korean citizens could pose a danger to its own citizens. The government had evaluated the Constitution and international treaties, but couldn’t find clauses applicable to the fishermen.” The South Korean authorities also responded, “They could not be considered refugees because, as suspected murderers, they had committed a nonpolitical crime.” The OHCHR also sent a similar letter to North Korea about the two fishermen, but had not heard back from them.
The South Korean authorities reported that the two men had a notebook in their possession, which was not common for squid fishermen. No doubt, they had braved the ocean in search of freedom. Unfortunately, they became tragic victims of a false accusation by the South Korean government that was more interested in appeasing Kim Jong-un than protecting their freedom.
The Ministry of Unification might threaten this reporter with a legal action yet again, but it cannot hide the truth no matter what. Recently, the Moon administration has been suing and arresting reporters for “spreading fake news.” This reporter is willing to accept any hardship to protect the people’s right to know.