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[Editorial] Thorough probe required Photos belie announcement that NK fishers did not want to defect

July 15, 2022 - 05:30 By Korea Herald
The photos of the repatriation of two North Korean fishers, released by the Unification Ministry, are shocking.

The pictures taken by a ministry official at the truce village of Panmunjom on Nov. 7, 2019, show the North Koreans clearly refusing to return to their country.

One of them strongly resisted being dragged across to the North side of the military demarcation line, with his feet against the concrete block marking the line and his waist bent backward. Apparently, in the course of resistance on the South side, he fell on his side, and South Korean officials surrounded him to raise him up. The other fisherman looked resigned while crossing the borderline.

At that time, the government did not let them know where they were going. They were blindfolded and reportedly even gagged, their hands tied by rope. When blindfolds were taken off, they were said to have dropped to their knees after seeing North Korean soldiers.

The Moon administration announced that they had no “sincere” intention to defect to South Korea. But the photos belie the announcement. Moreover, it was found by the Yoon Suk-yeol administration that they had submitted to the South Korean authorities a signed statement of intention to defect.

It was clear that, in all probability, they would be executed when they returned to North Korea. And yet they were sent back. This is a blatant violation of human rights and a barbaric act rarely seen in a country that claims to respect human rights, even of criminals and suspects.

It is beyond imagination for the South Korean government to skip proper investigation and trial to rush them back to a place of execution.

The men were reportedly executed for treason soon after being repatriated. This indicates that Pyongyang, unlike Seoul, regarded them as willing to defect to South Korea. North Korea is said to have utilized this case to show its residents that if they defect to South Korea, they will be repatriated -- and executed in the North.

It goes against the Constitution to repatriate North Korean defectors. Under the Constitution, North Korean residents are regarded as South Korean people. Once in South Korea, they are treated as South Koreans.

Under a law on North Korean defectors, they are entitled to stand trial in South Korea. But the fishers forfeited the right.

The Moon administration first concealed their defection and its plan to repatriate them. Then a media photo happened to capture a mobile phone message sent by a South Korean military officer in Panmunjom to a senior Cheong Wa Dae official to the effect that “two North Koreans are scheduled to be handed over to North Korea at 3 pm today (Nov. 7).” With the message exposed to the public, the government announced that they had no sincere intention to defect. But the photos -- and their execution in North Korea -- say exactly the opposite.

On the day when the Moon administration notified North Korea of its plan to repatriate the men, it sent Moon’s personal letter inviting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the South Korea-ASEAN Commemorative Summit in Busan from Nov. 25-27. Critics question whether South Korea gave up the North Korean men to invite Kim to Busan. Kim, however, declined the invitation.

The interrogation of North Koreans who enter South Korea for defection usually takes several weeks. But the Moon government finished investigations of the fishers in three days and let North Korea know the South plans to send them back immediately, even though Pyongyang did not request their repatriation earlier.

Even police commandos were mobilized to escort the fishers to Panmunjom in case of their strong resistance or attempts to injure themselves.

The opposition Democratic Party of Korea argues that South Korea should repatriate North Koreans if they are brutal criminals. This is not what a country that advocates for human rights should say. It also obscures the point of the issue, not to mention going against the Constitution.

Investigations into the repatriation have begun. They should get to the bottom of the issue, including questions such as who decided the repatriation and on what grounds. Those involved in unconstitutional, inhumane acts must be held responsible.