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[Herald Interview] Brother of slain S. Korean official hopes to reach out to Warmbiers

Oct. 7, 2020 - 18:03 By Kim Arin
Photo shows fishery patrol ship where the late South Korean official worked before he went missing. (courtesy of Lee)

The brother of a South Korean fisheries official who was killed by North Korean soldiers at sea two weeks ago said Wednesday he hoped to reach out to the family of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died in 2017 after spending 17 months in custody in Pyongyang.

Lee Rae-jin, 55, said in a phone interview that he wished to speak to others whose loved ones fell victims to the North’s atrocities -- for help and solidarity. He said he would “fight for (his) brother,” citing the example of the American victim’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, who won a lawsuit against North Korea two years ago.

“There might be something people who suffered the same pain can do together to put pressure on North Korea,” he said.

“Our family is at a loss for what to do,” he said. “My brother was slaughtered in foreign waters in the cruelest way possible. This should not happen to anyone, and I want to raise awareness in the international community.”

His brother, 47, was shot dead and set ablaze in the North’s waters at around 9:40 p.m. on Sept. 22 after he went missing the previous day during a patrol duty.

On Tuesday, Lee submitted a letter with the United Nations Human Rights Office in Seoul to request a probe into his brother’s death. “I believe that there should be a thorough, impartial probe from an independent third party to determine the facts,” he said. “(South Korean) authorities failed to show they are capable of being unbiased.”

With the probe, he said he wished to “put a stop to the North’s acts of cruelty against innocent civilians.”

He rejected government claims of his brother’s willful defection to the North. “They were so quick to tell the world he had defected,” he said. “In making him out to be a defector, the government is evading accountability in the apparent failure to protect its citizen.”

He said such “leaps to conclusions” were “demeaning and demoralizing,” accusing the government of “fabricating a narrative that antagonizes a powerless citizen.”

“The authorities publicized bits of my brother’s personal life -- such as his financial situation or his marital status -- and used them to back the defection scenario, as if they could somehow serve as a justification for his death,” he said.

“Look at his records as a public servant. He loved his country, he was devoted to his job, and he lost his life while on official duty,” he said. “My brother doesn’t deserve to be treated like this.”

Of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s letter of apology to Cheong Wa Dae, he said he believed it “might be a good sign.”

“I’ve been told it is meaningful and unprecedented, and I think it has given me some hopes of possible progress,” he said. “But still, not a thousand apologies can make a wrong right.”

He questioned the government’s “uncritical embrace” of North Korea’s account on the case. “I don’t think we should take what the North says about what happened at face value,” he said. “Hopefully, there will be talks of a joint probe soon.”

As for search efforts by the Coast Guard and military, he said it was hard for him to take them as sincere. “When I sought help from authorities at a time my brother would have been still alive, I was snubbed. Where were they when there was a chance of saving him?” he said. “The theater of it all is what’s exhausting.”

Asked what he and the rest of the family wanted most, he replied: “For the truth to be revealed, and have my brother’s honor restored.”

“Nothing makes sense about how my brother died. I don’t think I will be able to find peace until I do everything I can to find the full truth.”

By Kim Arin (