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[Editorial] Uncover truths

Thorough investigation should reveal facts behind dispute-laden death of fisheries official

June 21, 2022 - 05:30 By Korea Herald
A probe has been launched into the previous administration’s questionable handling of a tragic incident in which Lee Dae-jun, a South Korean fisheries official, was shot to death and burned by the North Korean military near the western sea border in 2020.

At the heart of the dispute is whether the Moon Jae-in administration had distorted facts regarding the death of the official. There are rising suspicions about why Cheong Wa Dae archived key documents as part of Moon’s classified presidential records.

The Board of Audit and Inspection, or BAI, said Friday it kicked off a probe into the case, a day after the Coast Guard announced it had not found any evidence suggesting the official had any reason to defect to the North.

The 47-year-old fisheries official went missing on Sept. 21, 2020, while on duty near Yeonpyeong Island. The next day, Lee was fatally shot by the North’s military. At the time, both the South Korean military and the Coast Guard announced Lee was trying to defect to the North, citing his gambling debt. They have since apologized for their response.

But Lee’s bereaved family, who had long argued that he had no reason to defect, demanded that the government unearth the truth and punish those responsible. The family claimed that a figure from the Moon administration orchestrated the probe into Lee’s past to make his death look like a defection gone wrong.

The Moon administration itself spawned suspicions by refusing to fully disclose information about Lee’s death, and even defied a court order to provide undisclosed information to Lee’s family.

Since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un apologized for Lee’s death in a notice sent to South Korea on Sept. 25, 2020, the Moon administration falsely believed that the case was closed, and that it would be forgotten. But doubts did not die down, largely because the bereaved family tried to restore Lee’s reputation and uncover the truth through various efforts including litigation.

In particular, critics claimed that the Moon administration’s response was fatally delayed, since Moon was set to deliver a keynote speech by video to the 75th United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 23 to drum up support for a declaration to end the Korean War.

If the Moon administration did indeed distort facts for fear that the case might negatively affect inter-Korean relations and the former president’s end-of-war declaration push, it would mean a gross failure of the state to put the lives and properties of its people first.

What deeply frustrates the bereaved family and possibly the BAI’s forthcoming investigation is that the Moon administration had consistently attempted to keep key information secret. As the crucial documents are now part of Moon’s classified presidential records, they cannot be released to the public for 15 years, unless two-thirds of lawmakers vote for the disclosure.

The ruling People Power Party criticized the Moon administration’s response as showing a “submissive attitude” toward North Korea, and urged the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea -- Moon’s party -- to cooperate for the disclosure of relevant information. But Democratic Party leader Woo Sang-ho flatly refused to do so, saying that the intelligence agency had reported the case as a defection based on wiretapped information.

It is regrettable that the Moon administration has long ignored the bereaved family’s demands to disclose related information. The family even filed a suit against a court ruling, but President Moon himself did not make good on his promise to Lee’s son to uncover the truth. Democratic Party members have no intention of reopening the case, even after the Coast Guard revealed that there was no evidence for defection.

The BAI’s investigation alone cannot identify all the facts. The current administration, lawmakers and officials from the Moon administration involved with the case should work together to reveal the truth.