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Ex-FM Chung says no request from N. Korea for fishermen's repatriation

This photo, provided by the Ministry of Unification last Tuesday, shows a North Korean fisherman (C, in gray), who was captured near the eastern inter-Korean sea border, resisting as he is handed over to North Korean authorities in the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom in November 2019. (Ministry of Unification)
This photo, provided by the Ministry of Unification last Tuesday, shows a North Korean fisherman (C, in gray), who was captured near the eastern inter-Korean sea border, resisting as he is handed over to North Korean authorities in the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom in November 2019. (Ministry of Unification)

Former Foreign Minister and National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong rejected allegations Sunday that South Korea sent two North Korean fishermen back to their homeland in 2019 after North Korea requested their repatriation first.

Chung made the remark in a statement issued via Rep. Yoon Kun-young of the main opposition Democratic Party, stressing that South Korea first asked the North if it was willing to accept the two fishermen before deporting them.

The statement came after a newspaper report alleged that the North informed the then presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae, that a fishing boat carrying North Koreans was heading to South Korea and the notification could be seen as an order for the South to capture and repatriate them.

"No request was received from North Korea that the brutal criminals be repatriated," Chung said in the statement. "But we sounded out North Korea's intentions because we need to check the willingness of the counterpart nation first in case of deportation."

Chung served as the chief of the presidential National Security Office at the time.

In 2019, the North Koreans were captured near the sea border in the East Sea. They confessed to killing 16 fellow crew members and expressed a desire to defect to South Korea, but the then Moon Jae-in government deemed their intentions to be insincere and sent them back to the North.

The repatriation is one of the suspicious cases involving the former administration that President Yoon Suk-yeol's government is revisiting, along with the North's killing of a South Korean fisheries official near the western sea border in 2020.

Criticism of the repatriation escalated last week after the unification ministry released 10 photos of the North Koreans being dragged across the inter-Korean border and handed over to the North, apparently against their will.

Critics have accused the then Moon Jae-in administration of sending them back to their homeland in an effort to curry favor with Pyongyang so as to help move the stalled inter-Korean peace process forward. (Yonhap)

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