Suspicions over the arrival of a North Korean fishing boat at a South Korean port for defection are getting amplified.
Four North Koreans aboard a small wooden boat allegedly left Gyeongseong in North Hamgyeong Province on June 9, crossed the maritime border with South Korea and docked the boat at Samcheok, Gangwon Province, a port 130 kilometers south of the border.
Neither the South Korean Navy nor the Coast Guard knew about it until a civilian reported the boat via an emergency hotline to the police on June 15.
Cheong Wa Dae, the National Intelligence Service, and military authorities received the first of a series of reports on the situation from the Coast Guard about 20 minutes after the civilian had spotted the boat at around 6:50 am.
Two days later on June 17, the situation was known to the public after a Defense Ministry’s background briefing to reporters.
The ministry said it had picked up the boat in the vicinity of the Samcheok Port, despite the fact that it had received reports from the Coast Guard two days earlier that the boat was found moored at a wharf.
The ministry did not disclose that it had received detailed reports from the Coast Guard.
Apparently mindful of criticisms of lax border security, the ministry exaggerated wave heights, saying high waves prevented the military from identifying the boat. But waves were 0.2 meters high on average when the boat arrived at the port. The ministry magnified them up to 10 times.
And what’s more, it was revealed that an official of the National Security Office of Cheong Wa Dae had sneaked into the briefing room and observed the briefing. The room is said to be normally limited to reporters and related ministry officials when a background briefing is held there.
With controversies flaring up over the briefing, Yoon Do-han, senior presidential press secretary, acknowledged on Friday that the NSO knew roughly beforehand about what the ministry would say in the briefing. He also admitted an NSO officer had been in the briefing room.
But he added that Cheong Wa Dae did not interfere in the briefing contents.
Cheong Wa Dae effectively acknowledged it had discussed the briefing with the ministry beforehand and that it had not tried to correct the briefing.
Cheong Wa Dae must disclose what it discussed with the ministry for more than 48 hours after receiving the coast guard’s reports. It must also find out who tried to twist the reports to prevent people from knowing the situation as is.
Yoon blamed news media, saying that “the incident should not have been reported by the media from the beginning” because “if it is reported, inter-Korean relations could be undermined.”
This indicates that Cheong Wa Dae was trying to avoid offending the North in dealing with the incident.
This also stirs up questions about the government’s repatriation of two of the four North Koreans. It is hard to understand why it returned them to the North quickly. The South sent them back to the North on June 18, a day after the briefing, over the land border allegedly at their requests. The other two are being investigated by the authorities after they wanted to defect to the South.
A small wooden boat came down to a point 50 km east of the eastern South Korean island of Ulleungdo, then turned west, went past the island and arrived at the Samcheock Port. Its travel distance is more than 500 km. It is a wonder how a small wooden boat with four people on board could make the trip.
The military was in the dark about a North Korean boat infiltrating the South Korean port for defection. Cheong Wa Dae knew what the military would brief reporters, but denied interfering in the briefing contents. Cheong Wa Dae and the ministry gave an impression that they tried to conceal the incident rather than disclose it.
If the government tries to hide the truth because it thinks Pyongyang may be offended, that will imperil national security. Inter-Korean relations are important, but national security must come first.
To ensure security, the military must review its border surveillance urgently and suspicions over the incident must be cleared.