Mystery of Repatriated North Korean Fishermen
How South Korea sent defectors back to the North in 2019 reveals that human rights are a fluid concept, even for center-left 'progressive' politicians.
A set of ten photos featuring two men has dominated the news cycle in South Korea for the last ten days.
In a sequence, the pair wait in a room, hands bound with ropes and plastic cable ties. Once outside, they are dragged by plain-clothed security personnel against will. One of the men holds his ground while being pushed over a long slap of stone. Two soldiers grab him by the elbow. He resists without success. A sense of desperation is palpable.
These pictures, released by the Ministry of Unification on July 12, show forced repatriation of two North Koreans nearly three years ago, on Nov 7, 2019.
The group of men pulling the two along the way are South Korean police. The soldiers in uniform are from North Korea, standing on their side of the inter-Korean demarcation line within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
The revelation has set off a political firestorm.
While in power from 2017 to 2022, President Moon Jae-in made improving inter-Korean relations his priority. He held two summits with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and invited North Korea to participate in the 2018 Pyeongchang winter Olympics, hosted by South Korea.
In December 2020, his Minjoo Party even passed a law banning the distribution of anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets across the DMZ—an activity that had long displeased the Kim regime.
Against that backdrop, evidence that the center-left Moon government repatriated North Koreans by force has prompted accusations from the rightwing media that it "offered defectors as human sacrifice" to satisfy Pyongyang.
Unfortunately for Moon, who finished his term in May, and the Minjoo Party, such language rings over-the-top but not entirely implausible.
The basic facts of the case are not in dispute: the two men belonged to the crew of a North Korean fishing vessel and first crossed the de facto eastern sea border between the two Koreas, called the Northern Limit Line (NLL), on Oct. 31, 2019. They were taken into custody by the South Korean navy on Nov. 2.
Seoul conducted a quick investigation and concluded that they weren't sincere about defection. It informed Pyongyang on Nov. 5 that the two would be sent back.
And just two days after that, on Nov. 7, the men were transferred to North Korea. Yet media learned of it only because a presidential secretary was photographed that same day reading a text message about the handover.
Even before the photos emerged, this speed and efficiency with which the transfer was conducted fed suspicion then that the Moon administration deliberately rushed the process.
The government justified the repatriation at the time by saying that the North Koreans had murdered 16 fellow crew members including the captain. "It was determined that they would pose a threat to citizens' life and safety if they were integrated into society. They also couldn't be recognized as refugees under international law as they are vicious criminals," said a unification ministry spokesperson at a press briefing following the repatriation.
But on Jul 11, the very same ministry's current spokesperson, Cho Joong-hoon contradicted that stance three years ago.
"We are of the position that sending the North Korean fishermen to the North was clearly wrong considering all the suffering they would incur."
He added, "Back in November 2019 we informed the National Assembly that our report included a mention of the request in writing by the fishermen for protection."
The pictures of the North Koreans physically struggling against South Korean police casts doubt on the Moon administration's credibility. And as reported by multiple outlets, they weren't just restrained; while difficult to see through the pixelation, they were also blindfolded as if authorities didn't want them to know they were being escorted to the DMZ.
The Minjoo has gone on the defensive, saying there was genuine reason to question the express written wish to defect. Kim Byung-joo, a Minjoo lawmaker and retired army general, took to the media on Jul 14:
"The [Moon] government already knew on Oct 30 [of 2019] through several channels that [they were murderers on the run]. [...] And just when the government and military concluded that they would pose a threat to our citizen's safety should they come to the South, this fishing vessel indeed crossed the NLL on Oct 31.
"The navy pursued them and they fled north of the NLL. The next day, they crossed the NLL again, but when pursued, they fled north of the NLL yet again. That's why on Nov 2 a special naval operation unit was deployed, and when the ship crossed the NLL again, the military fired warning shots and captured those onboard alive."
"In consideration of their fugitive activities and the complete circumstance, it was decided that they weren't sincere about wanting to defect to the South and that they should be sent back north."
Of course, this being South Korea, there is more than just a little whiff of politics in the sudden publication of three-year-old photos. If the South Korean left's favorite way of discrediting the right is invoking the legacy of Japanese colonial rule and collaboration, the right, to which the current president Yoon Suk-yeol and his People Power Party belong, has a history of digging up suspected pro-North Korean sympathies within the Minjoo ranks for political gains.
In September 2020, a South Korean fisheries official went missing from a ship in the Western Sea, just a few kilometers south of the de facto maritime border. He was found to have been shot to death by North Korean troops. The Moon administration officials claimed the man had been trying to defect to the North but was killed due to Pyongyang's covid prevention policies (an outsider may be carrying the virus).
Last month, the defense ministry changed that conclusion completely and said there was no evidence of defection. And around that same time comments from unnamed high-ranking government sources were leaked to the press: that the Yoon administration intended to reexamine the facts of the North Korean fishermen repatriation case as well.
Lo and behold, on Jul 6, the National Intelligence Service (NIS)—South Korea's spy agency—filed criminal complaints against its two Moon-appointed ex-chefs for abuse of power and falsification of documents in the above two cases. The agency accuses its own former bosses of manipulating the facts to suit the Moon administration's politics.
Then the unification ministry changed its conclusion about the propriety of sending back the fishermen, and the photos in question started circulating on Jul 12, opening the door for President Yoon to officially condemn his predecessor, Moon:
"The presidential office [of Moon Jae-in] at the time framed the North Korean fishermen as vicious criminals and decided on their repatriation even before they crossed over to our side."
Yoon's office also argues that the South Korean navy didn't try to capture the North Koreans; it attempted to push them back north of the NLL, and that's why the ship didn't surrender immediately.
Predictably, conservative media are having a field day over the growing scandal and publishing new allegations against Moon each day.
Back in late June, TV Chosun, a broadcasting arm of the main rightwing paper Chosun Ilbo, asserted without presenting any evidence, "Even before North Korea demanded it, the Moon administration offered to send the fishermen back. This happened to be the day Moon dispatched his personal invitation to North Korea's chairman Kim Jong-un to come to Busan [a South Korean port city]."
The Joongang claimed on Jul 13 citing unnamed sources, "The North Korean fishermen shouted 'defection' from the moment they were captured."
In contrast, the leftwing media exemplified by The Hankyoreh question the motivation of government ministries in reversing their previous conclusions to benefit the Yoon administration. "Why are the unification ministry, defense ministry and the National Intelligence Service so eager to perform self-reflection?"
The implied answer is that they are all dancing to the tune of the new conservative government's anti-Moon, anti-Minjoo agenda.
Yet such a political reading of the events does not change what's shown in the photos, not to mention the video of the repatriation released by the unification ministry on Monday. Particularly troubling is how one of the fishermen attempts to flee by running to the side before being ganged up on by the police escort.
And there are legal ramifications. The South Korean constitution defines national territory as all of the Korean Peninsula, and the Supreme Court confirmed that North Korean citizenship holders are in fact South Korean citizens.
That renders the Minjoo's position that North Korean criminals cannot be welcomed on South Korean soil untenable as said criminals were South Korean citizens by law. And human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have joined in on the call to condemn the forced repatriation, which they see as sending the fishermen into harm's way.
The fact remains that human rights are a fluid concept in the South Korean context, exploited by rival political parties as necessary.
The conservatives, normally indifferent to the plight of the weak and marginalized, are quick to express outrage when North Korea is accused of committing crimes against its own people (and the left is accused of abetting the acts). The ostensibly 'progressive' Minjoo including Moon was passionate about uncovering the truth of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, which killed more than 300 people, most of them high school students.
But the same party has shown no appetite for challenging Pyongyang's human rights record and clearly had no problem with repatriating reluctant defectors while knowing what kind of treatment they might face in North Korea.
Even though the political motivation behind the Yoon administration's attack over how Moon and the Minjoo handled the 2019 repatriation cannot be more transparent, questioning the graphic evidence of the progressives' hypocrisy is proving difficult.
Cover: a picture of a North Korean fisherman resisting the repatriation in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Nov 7, 2019 (source: the South Korean Ministry of Unification)