The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Did 'people come first'?

Inaction to save a citizen, attempts to mislead public will be remembered

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 11, 2023 - 05:31

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The state audit agency released last week the final results of its yearlong inspection into North Korea’s killing of a South Korean government official who drifted into the North’s waters in the West Sea in 2020.

Relevant government agencies under the Moon Jae-in administration at the time -- the presidential National Security Office, the Coast Guard, the Unification and Defense Ministries, and the National Intelligence Service -- did virtually nothing to save the South Korean citizen, then deleted classified information to cover up the incident and branded him a defector to the North with no clear evidence, the Board of Audit and Inspection said.

Upon releasing the interim probe results in October last year, the BAI requested the prosecution to investigate 20 people involved. Five of them -- former national security adviser Suh Hoon, former Coast Guard chief Kim Hong-hee, ex-Defense Minister Suh Wook, ex-NIS chief Park Jie-won and ex-NIS Chief of Staff Roh Eun-chae -- have been indicted so far, and their court trials have been underway since January.

North Korean soldiers shot Lee Dae-jun, an employee of the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries whose job was to monitor fishing vessels, after he was found in the sea wearing a life jacket and holding on to a floating device. His body was then burned citing fears he might bring the coronavirus onshore.

The North’s actions were appalling, and the South’s inaction was even more disturbing.

According to the BAI, the NSO initially received a report from the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff at 5:18 p.m. on Sept. 22, 2020, that a South Korean official was found in North Korean waters, about 38 hours after he went unaccounted for, but did not inform the Unification Ministry.

The Defense Ministry did not contact the North to guarantee Lee’s safety.

The Coast Guard did not request cooperation with the police, so the police continued to search for Lee where he went missing, about 27 kilometers away from where he was found.

A Unification Ministry director-general heard what happened from the NIS around 6 p.m. but did not report it to his minister or deputy minister.

Then-NSO chief Suh and his deputy went home before 7:30 p.m., and about two hours later, the North shot Lee and incinerated his body.

In a meeting of relevant ministers held at 1 a.m., the NSO instructed them to keep it under wraps, the BAI said.

At 2:30 a.m., the Defense Ministry instructed the JCS to delete classified records on the case, and the JCS had a working-level official come to the office at 3:30 a.m. to expunge intelligence reports that were supposed to be retained permanently.

At 1:30 p.m. that day, the Defense Ministry sent out text messages about the case to reporters as if Lee was still alive.

At 4:35 p.m., the ministry sent a message to the North which it did not send when Lee was alive.

The NSO instructed government agencies to inform the press about the possibility that Lee sought to defect to the North.

The NIS concluded on Sept. 27 that it was unclear whether Lee sought to defect, but it did nothing about the NSO’s guidelines which were based on the judgment that he did.

In order to assert that Lee deliberately tried to get to the North’s waters, the Coast Guard distorted the results of an analysis on the suspected route of Lee from his boat to where he was found, according to the BAI.

The Coast Guard told reporters that Lee had gambled, was divorced and had debts, but didn’t mention that he had children who sent letters to Moon and later to Yoon saying their father would never have defected.

What were the government agencies trying to hide? The fact that they were too naive and incompetent to do anything to ensure the safety of their citizen, or their attempts to excuse themselves by branding the victim a defector?

Moon, who used “people come first” as his political slogan for years, must explain.