The South Korean military captured a North Korean boat on July 27, 2019, after it crossed the Northern Limit Line into South Korean waters in the East Sea.
About 10 days after it was seized, an administrative official at President Moon Jae-in’s Cheong Wa Dae was found to have summoned Park Han-ki, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to question him about why he refused to follow an instruction to release the boat back to the North.
At the time, Kim You-geun, the first deputy chief of the National Security Office, is said to have given this instruction, citing the North Korean crew‘s claim that they had made a navigational error.
But Park reportedly argued that the boat came down the east coast alone in the dead of night, and that it was nearly impossible for its crew to make a navigational mistake because they could clearly see South Korea’s front-line iron fences and light from South Korean ports. The JCS chairman said an investigation was needed.
Park is also said to have remarked that the JSC chairman should follow orders from the national defense minister regarding military commands, and that it was inappropriate to follow direct instructions from the deputy chief of the NSO.
At the time, there was no mention of presidential directions to the same effect as Kim’s words.
Park reportedly received approval from the defense minister to capture the boat.
The JCS chairman was questioned by a senior administrative official belonging to the office of senior presidential secretary for civil affairs. Two investigators, allegedly from the office of another senior presidential secretary, are said to have joined the questioning.
The examination lasted for more than four hours in a room outfitted with recording equipment.
Naturally, the military should arrest North Korean boats violating the NLL and investigate their violations to see whether their crew members were trying to defect to the South, or if they are spies.
The JCS chairman, ranked the highest among active officers, commands all operation units under orders from the defense minister.
The now-defunct office of the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs had no authority to investigate JCS operations.
The nation’s top operational commander, who made reasonable instructions, was summoned and interrogated by an administrative official of a Cheong Wa Dae department that had nothing to do with military operations.
The authority of the military’s top-ranked officer was trampled. Park reportedly said he did not want to mention the issue, but surely he must have felt miserable.
The boat in question stayed north of the NLL for a while, then started its engine at around 11:21 p.m. and sailed south with a white cloth tied to its mast. It was likely that the boat intentionally crossed the line.
And yet Cheong Wa Dae’s NSO told the JCS to return the boat without investigating any possible NLL violations. This instruction was entirely unjustifiable.
The NLL is a line of demarcation that numerous South Korean soldiers died to defend. It is wrong to inhibit the arrest of North Korean boats that cross the line. North Korea has never stopped attempting to incapacitate the NLL by any means. The NSO instruction effectively disabled the South Korean military and helped with the North’s attempts to neutralize the borderline.
The military sent back the boat and its crew about 40 hours after seizing them. It rushed repatriation, probably because of pressure from Cheong Wa Dae.
Investigating the JCS chairman for refusing to follow instructions by the deputy chief of Cheong Wa Dae’s security office, not by the defense minister, breaches the hierarchy of military ranks.
If Kim had instructed the JCS without presidential orders and an administrative official of Cheong Wa Dae’s office for civil affairs summoned the JCS chairman for questioning, they would have overstepped their bounds. A probe is needed.