Kwon Young-mi gave a tearful news conference Friday after the South Korean maritime and military authorities reversed their earlier announcement and said they found no evidence her late husband, Lee Dae-jun, tried to defect to North Korea. (Yonhap)
The widow of Lee Dae-jun, a South Korean fisheries official killed and burned by North Korean troops in 2020 at sea, said the Moon Jae-in administration seemed more sympathetic toward the North than the bereaved family.
In a phone interview with The Korea Herald on Sunday, Lee’s widow Kwon Young-mi said the family had often felt the previous administration was “siding with North Korea.”
Over the weekend, the Democratic Party of Korea’s leadership hit back at the recent criticisms of the government’s response to Lee’s killing by North Korea at the time, saying the criticisms were an attempt to “make the Moon administration out to be pro-North Korea.”
Kwon said the Moon administration’s statements, public acts and overall response had left the family feeling that “our government is sympathizing with the North’s regime more than the victim, who was a South Korean government official,” she said. “It was a horrible sense of abandonment.”
The former president and politicians were “fawning all over” a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, revealed by Cheong Wa Dae’s Office of National Security three days after Lee was killed, she said, “which hurt.”
“No amount of letters can make that OK. Our government did nothing to hold the perpetrators accountable,” she said.
She said the North Korean leader “has never apologized to the family.”
“For one thing, it was addressed to Moon and the South Korean public, not the family,” she said. “Then about a month after the letter was sent, North Korea said the South was to blame for what happened, which is the opposite of an apology.”
On Sunday Rep. Woo Sang-ho, interim chair of the Democratic Party, said that with the apology from North Korea, Lee’s case had already been “put to rest.” He argued that the last government under Moon had “brought North Korea to its knees” by getting an apology out of Kim.
On Woo’s remarks, Kwon said Moon’s Cheong Wa Dae and the Democratic Party were “so smitten with the North Korean leader and his so-called apology” that they “threw the family under the bus.”
“I don’t think Woo, or anyone else for that matter, should be accepting apologies on our behalf,” she said. “As far as we’re concerned, that does not count as an apology, and we have never forgiven Kim Jong-un.”
Kwon called on the Democratic Party to “come up with an acceptable explanation or proof” that indicates her husband had sought to defect to North Korea.
The main opposition’s Rep. Youn Kun-young, who served as Moon’s state affairs monitoring director, rejected the latest conclusion from the maritime and military authorities that no evidence pointed to a defection. “We said the official appeared to have tried to defect to North Korea from a comprehensive investigation,” he said.
Youn shut down calls for declassifying records, which are barred from public access as part of Moon’s presidential records, saying their rehashing amounted to a “strategic attempt to smear the last administration.”
Kwon said that until recently, the Democratic Party, as well as security and other top authorities, based the claims of defection on a wiretapped conversation between North Korean soldiers alone. The conversation revealed the soldiers had knowledge of Lee’s personal information, such as his height and hometown.
“It was puzzling to me that the arbitrary things North Korean soldiers said was deemed so credible in the absence of other evidence, like an actual admission or confession from my husband,” she said.
She said her family has faced animosity online, mainly from Democratic Party supporters, for being the “wife or children of a traitor.”
“Surely Democratic Party lawmakers understand what it means to be branded a defector in this country. All South Koreans know the gravity of that label and the stigma associated with it,” she said.
And yet they were “continuously pushing the defection narrative,” she said. “They’re egging on their supporters.”
She went on, “I hope they realize what they’re doing is victim-blaming.”
Kwon shared a letter her son wrote to Woo, the Democratic Party leader. “Mr. Woo, you say it matters little whether it’s a defection or not. Then what made you accuse my father of that crime?” the 20-year-old wrote in the letter.
“Not only did my children lose their father, they’re having to deal with this serious accusation thrown at him, which turned out to be baseless,” she said.
She said it was only recently that her 9-year-old daughter learned about the death of her father. “I didn’t think we could keep it from her any longer,” she said.
After the Coast Guard and the Ministry of Defense on June 16 said there was “no evidence” that the missing official tried to defect to North Korea, reversing their earlier announcements, Kwon agreed to disclose her name and show her image to news outlets.
In a tearful news conference held the following day at the Seoul Bar Association office, she said she “feel(s) safer” about speaking up because the current administration was supportive.
Despite a correction from the maritime and military authorities, she said the family has yet to receive an apology from them. She said she believes the family was owed an apology from Moon and the lawmakers about the mischaracterization. “I want to ask, ‘If this has happened to your loved one, would you say the same?’”
By Kim Arin (email@example.com