The audience may remember the high-profile scandal in inter-Korean relations in which “Kim Jong-un apologized for the death of a South Korean citizen”. This murky story is now entering its second round, potentially very unpleasant for Moon Jae-in and his administration.
The author covered this topic back in the day, but since the NEO text fell victim to one of the cyber attacks on the resource by the US, we will repeat the background to the audience.
In late September 2020, relations between North and South Korea were strained by an incident in which a fisheries control officer of the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries of the Republic of Korea, Lee Dae-jun, “swam into DPRK waters and was shot and killed by border guards”.
The patrol boat with Lee on board was engaged in monitoring fishing activities in the border area with the Northern Limit Line, the disputed maritime border between the North and the South. By this time, Lee Dae-jun’s affairs were going badly: he had divorced shortly before and had huge debts of 20 million won (about $17,000), including gambling debts. Worse still, the creditors from whom he borrowed money have had his wages confiscated in payment of these debts.
According to the South’s official version, Lee spoke to his son on the phone around midnight and went on the night shift and was missed at 11.30 am on September 21, 2020, finding only his shoes, documents and wallet on board and within an hour the official was being sought by 20 ships and two aircraft from the army, the coast guard and the ROK Ministry of Oceans. 28 hours after his disappearance, Lee was found in DPRK territorial waters about 4 km from the Northern Limit Line and 28 km from where he disappeared from the boat. The whole time he was allegedly staying in the water wearing a lifejacket and holding on to some “floating object”. From 4.40 pm, the North Koreans, keeping their distance and wearing respirators and chemical protection kits, began negotiations, but Lee remained in the water. The South Korean military allegedly intercepted a message from North Korean commanders with “kill order” and soon it was seen that a North Korean military vessel approached the swimming official, from which Lee was shot, then the official’s body was allegedly doused with gasoline and set on fire: the flames were caught by a surveillance system from Yeonpyeong Island.
ROK President Moon Jae-in was made aware of the incident during the search phase and an emergency meeting was called on the night of September 22-23, 2020, involving the ROK presidential administration and key ministries. From the afternoon of September 23, information was leaked through unofficial channels to the mainstream media, after which virtually every government agency or prominent ROK politician spoke out either of a “shocking act” or an “inexcusable cruelty”.
The North Korean version, presented later, speaks of an unidentified man who tried to enter North Korean waters but bustled when questioned and eventually tried to escape, whereupon he was fired upon according to the statute. The guards then saw a certain object covered in blood, but no body was found, and the “floating object” was burnt as part of anti-epidemic measures.
Moreover, on September 25, the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea sent a letter to the South: the text was not given, but North Korean leader Kim Jong-un allegedly apologized to Seoul for the “disappointing” incident. However, the letter was never published, and we judge Kim’s apology on the word of the southerners and because Pyongyang has not denied it.
The South called for a joint investigation, but on September 27 the KNCA issued a report warning the South Korean authorities: we are looking for the body ourselves and demanding the South immediately stop “unauthorized incursions across the military demarcation line in the West Sea, which could trigger another round of tension”.
The ROK media and “anonymous but well-informed experts” (including South Korean intelligence officers) immediately began “hyping” the version that Lee Dae-jun was about to escape to the North under the strain of pressing problems. A very important detail – if Lee tried to escape to the DPRK and was killed, this makes him not an innocent victim of unforgivable cruelty, but a traitor who, in fact, got what he deserved.
However, the question of how South Korean intelligence came to these conclusions remains essentially open. The official South Korean version is based on circumstantial evidence, so the real picture of what happened in the Yellow Sea remains unclear.
This is why the version of the escape was immediately criticized, especially by the family of the murdered man. In addition, the version that the deceased was not going to escape was picked up by the Conservatives. It was important to them to put both the DPRK (“killed a civilian accidentally caught in their waters instead of providing assistance”) and the Moon government (“a South Korean citizen was brutally killed and burned, and not only did they do nothing, but they want to compromise the person they did not want to save or failed in a failed rescue operation”) in a bad light.
The politicization of the issue only added to the excitement, although the main question for the author – how the deceased was able to swim 38 km and why he did it – remained open. After all, in Korea, people who wish to commit suicide by throwing themselves into the water or jumping off a cliff often leave their shoes at the scene of their death. Unfortunately, the late Lee will tell us no more, and the set of facts that we currently have at our disposal leaves room for various interpretations, including that the official who went missing and the defector who was shot dead are NOT the same person.
It is this version that seems most logical to the author. Mr Lee committed suicide under the strain of life’s problems, and shortly afterwards a certain unidentified citizen tried to flee to the North and was killed. It is unknown who it was, although the author has heard from unqualified sources that the unknown man killed by the North was a defector – a relatively high-ranking man who, having successfully escaped to the South, faced being treated as a second-class citizen and decided to return to the North.
In any case, such a generally successful escape attempt (the border was crossed without anyone noticing or stopping him, and even against the background of the intensified search for Lee) meant a serious setback for everyone involved, for it is already known that the inter-Korean border is “strong” very conditionally. To avoid the proceedings and noise, someone suggested not to multiply the essence and declare that it was Lee Dae-jun who got into North Korean waters.
Kim Jong-un’s apology seemed to set the record straight. However, let us assume that the North Koreans knew the name, position and hometown of the deceased, but it is unclear at what point this became known to them. If this information first appeared in an apology report rather than a radio intercept, it seems logical that the North Koreans killed an unknown person at the time of the shooting, and when there was an uproar about it in the South, the logical conclusion was that official Lee had been killed at sea, and in later documents the deceased appeared under that name.
The family of the deceased also likes to see the deceased as a victim of the DPRK rather than a person who took his own life.
But let’s return from speculation to the facts. As expected, Lee Dae-jun’s family tried their best to whitewash him. They appealed to the media and international human rights organizations, demanding at least the investigation materials, but until the change of power, their efforts were unsuccessful. In November 2021, the Seoul Administrative Court ordered the Blue House and the Coast Guard to release secret information about Lee’s death to his family, but both bodies appealed the decision and the matter was put on hold indefinitely.
Conservatives, on the other hand, looked after Lee’s brother, who was most actively opposed to the version of the escape. At the meeting between Lee Rae-jin and Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Representative for Human Rights in the DPRK, he was accompanied by Tae Young-ho and Ha Tae-keung, the then head of the parliamentary intelligence committee.
So, on June 16, 2022, the story of the “Yellow Sea incident” took an unexpected turn. Initially, the national security office of the new President Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration, said it and the Coast Guard had withdrawn the appeal filed by the Moon administration.
A few hours later, a press conference was held at which the Coast Guard apologized for previously suggesting that Lee Dae-jun had tried to voluntarily defect to the North. This press conference was attended by a senior defense ministry official who said his ministry, too, had found no evidence of the official’s voluntary escape to the North and apologized “for the confusion caused by the ministry’s suggestion of a possible escape attempt”. In doing so, he confirmed “the circumstances under which the North Korean military shot and burned one of our citizens”.
The next day, on June 17, the Bureau of Audit and Inspection announced the launch of an investigation into the full circumstances of the Yellow Sea incident. The chief oversight body intends to scrutinize the primary data, the process and procedures for obtaining information on what happened, and the legality and reasonableness of the authorities’ decisions. The Coast Guard and the Ministry of Defense will come under scrutiny to begin with.
On June 20, Lee Dae-jun’s family vowed to file criminal lawsuits against a number of responsible officials in the ROK with the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office.
All this has caused a media storm and a number of unpleasant questions. For example, where did the military and intelligence information come from about an overheard conversation with the Northerners in which Lee stated his desire to escape. It appears that Moon Jae-in’s government manipulated information and exaggerated circumstantial evidence, if not distorted the facts about the official’s death altogether, an innocent man was publicly defamed and the Blue House hid the truth that contradicted its political line.
This is a very convenient set of accusations for Conservatives, extremely unpalatable for Moon and his entourage, good thing it itself provoked suspicion by refusing to fully disclose information about Lee’s death and even ignoring the court order. The ruling People Power party is therefore planning to conduct a parallel investigation and set up a task force for this purpose consisting of members of the national assembly who were members of parliamentary committees linked to the case. It will be headed by Ha Tae-keung.
At first, the Democratic Party refrained from any official reaction. Later, Woo Sang-ho, the current Democrat leader, said, “The case ended after North Korea apologized about it. Whether he [the victim] had the intention to defect or not is not important”. Moreover, Woo reiterated the thesis that the data on the escape attempt had been obtained through a special secret military eavesdropping system, and therefore “this is classified evidence. They just have to be believed” because any public disclosure of details or release of documents would damage the country’s defense capability by revealing important technical details to the DPRK.
It is not yet clear what the pace of the investigation will be or how it will progress. The fact is that certain pieces of relevant information are considered classified for 15 years for national security reasons, such as parts of President Moon’s personal archives. Revealing these facts to the public requires a court order or the approval of more than two-thirds of MPs, but the Democratic Party, which has a majority there, opposes this. And so it can be difficult to get to the truth completely.
However, the Democrats are already dealt a major reputational blow, which will be even greater if the author’s assumptions prove to be true.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.