Critics accuse South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol of reopening old cases involving the North for political gain

Murder at sea: Killings in North Korea anger politics in the south

Critics accuse South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol of reopening old cases involving the North for political purposes – Copyright AFP Jung Yeon-je

Kang Jin-kyu

When North Korean soldiers found a South Korean fishery official in their territorial waters, they shot him and burned the body, an incident so shocking that Kim Jong-un later apologized.

Details are sketchy – and mostly classified – but exactly how and why the official ended up wearing a life jacket over the maritime border known as the Northern Boundary Line in September 2020 has been the subject of fierce political debate in the South.

Was there 47-year-old official Lee Dae-jung, a potential defector fleeing gambling debts, as then-President Moon Jae-in’s government claimed, citing intelligence it then sealed for 30 years?

Or is this version of events really a smear campaign and a high-level cover-up, as Yoon Seok-yeol’s new government claimed by raiding the home of a former spy master and filing a lawsuit over how the previous administration handled the case?

Intelligence agencies claim that their former boss, Park Ji Won, destroyed evidence suggesting that Lee had no intention of moving to Pyongyang.

Park told AFP that the allegations were “political retaliation by the former administration”, dismissing the allegations as baseless.

The new Seoul administration also reopened an investigation into a second bombing case when two North Korean fishermen were deported in 2019 after confessing to killing 16 crew members at sea.

Yun’s conservative government released a dramatic video showing the couple apparently reluctantly pushing their way through a heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ) and heading back north.

Moon’s government at the time stated that the brutal nature of the killings meant that the men were not entitled to the usual protection afforded to North Korean defectors and could not be considered refugees.

– A political ploy? –

Analysts say the political infighting surrounding the two cases highlights the risks of interpreting classified intelligence and the law in a highly partisan manner.

Critics allege that the hawkish Yoon, who is struggling with record low approval ratings just months after becoming president, is engaging in old-school red-baiting in an attempt to salvage his popularity among disgruntled voters.

“For conservatives, these two cases are an example of liberals’ subservience to the North,” lawyer and columnist Yoo Chung-hoon told AFP.

But “the timing of the investigation immediately after the change of power raises questions about its political motives,” he added.

Supporters of Yong, a former prosecutor who won the March election and vowed to crack down on Pyongyang after years of failed diplomacy, say he is simply trying to crack cases.

“It would be a bigger problem if the prosecutors chose to ignore the allegations and bury the cases for fear of being labeled a ‘political investigation,'” Shin Yul, a professor at Myongji University, told AFP.

– “Realistic Approach” –

Lawyers say the cases have revealed contradictions in the country’s constitution.

A trial of the fishermen in South Korean courts would be unprecedented as it was unclear whether local courts had jurisdiction.

In one of the clauses of the South Korean constitution, the country’s territory is described as the “Korean Peninsula”.

Yoon suggested that the clause meant that men should be considered South Korean citizens and tried at home.

But the next paragraph commits to work towards “peaceful reunification” with the North, recognizing the reality that there are two different countries on the peninsula.

“Seoul should take a realistic approach in dealing with the North,” said Kim Jong-dae of the Yonsei Institute of North Korean Studies.

The Yun administration accused the Moon government of sending the fishermen “straight to death row” by repatriating them to the North.

But critics say the president is prioritizing “revenge politics” over more pressing political issues such as rising inflation and a falling currency.

According to Kim Jong-de, attempts to prosecute officials without providing “irrefutable evidence” in any case look suspicious.

“The administration is promoting a punitive administration with prosecutors at the forefront,” he said.

“It is one thing to ask questions and demand answers about how the previous government handled these two cases. But investigating ex-officials is a completely different matter, which inevitably raises suspicions of political motives.”

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