SEOUL — The video footage and photos captured their last moments in South Korea: two North Korean fishermen being taken to the border against their will. One of them was so resistant to deportation to North Korea that South Korean officials had to drag him. The other seemed resigned to his fate.
The footage and 10 photos of the men, recently released by the South Korean government, were taken in 2019. At the time, the South Korean government called the men “murderers” who killed 16 fellow North Korean fishermen. The men, while acknowledging the murders, said they wanted to defect.
The case sparked outrage at the time, as it was the first time South Korea has turned down a North Korean request to defect and someone accidentally crossed the border. By releasing new material, the conservative government of President Yoon Suk-yeol has revived the issue by accusing his predecessor’s government of human rights violations.
“The crux of the matter is that the fishermen who fled North Korea were reduced to their deaths there, as the North wished, when they should have been admitted and treated in South Korea in accordance with our own law,” Choi said. Young-bah, Mr. Yoon’s chief spokesman. Mr Yoon’s office has called the case a potential “crime against humanity.”
The allegations against the government of Moon Jae-in, Mr Yoon’s predecessor, are part of a recurring pattern in South Korea, where past leaders have often become entangled in investigations after leaving office. Of the four former presidents who have ruled the country for the past two decades, one – Roh Moo-hyun – committed suicide while under investigation for possible corruption. Two – Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye – were jailed for corruption.
A group of conservative lawyers is now asking prosecutors to investigate Mr Moon for murder and abuse of power in the case of the two North Koreans. If prosecutors comply with the request, Mr Moon will become the last ex-president to face a criminal investigation in South Korea.
“It’s the beginning of ‘politics by other means,'” said Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.
Moon’s opposition Democratic Party, in turn, has accused Mr. Yoon, who served as attorney general under Mr. Moon, of rethinking the case to distract from the president’s declining approval ratings and to cast doubt. to sow over Mr Moon’s legacy. Many of Mr Moon’s former top associates who were involved in the case of the two North Koreans are already under investigation by prosecutors.
“Yoon’s views on politics remain in the days of his prosecutor,” said Mr. ah. “He views politicians as potential criminals.”
Going after his predecessor could be a political gamble for Mr. Yoon. When mr. Moon left office in May, his approval ratings were higher than Mr. Yoon this month.
Yoon, who won the election by a razor-thin margin, has recently seen his approval ratings plummet to about 33 percent amid mounting concerns over rising consumer prices and a host of scandals involving his cabinet officials, his presidential staff and his wife, Kim Keon-hee. . This month, the president denied any political motive, saying investigations into previous governments were routine in South Korea.
Since taking office, Mr. Yoon continued to roll back some of Mr. Moon’s main policy.
He has ordered his government to start building nuclear power plants, following Mr. Moon to phase out nuclear power has rejected. He’s working on lowering the property taxes Mr. Moon has introduced to curb house prices. His administration has also moved to re-establish ties with Japan that had been severed under the previous administration
The aggressive attempt to change Mr. Undoing Moon could fuel domestic tensions at a time when South Korea urgently needs bipartisan support to manage a cooling economy and help Washington contain North Korean threats. “A less divided South Korea could also be a more effective ally of the United States,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international relations at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “But the paths to domestic unity are narrowing.”
Along with those of the two North Korean men, Mr. Yoon also draws attention to a 2020 case, when a South Korean fisheries officer disappeared from his ship and was later found in North Korean waters. South Korea accused the North of killing the official and burning his body at sea. It said at the time that the official, Lee Dae-joon, was trying to defect.
Under Mr Yoon, the South Korean Coast Guard withdrew its conclusion last month, saying it found no evidence that the official was attempting to defect. Mr Yoon’s government camp said the Moon government portrayed the official as a defector in order to dampen outrage over his assassination and to salvage Mr Moon’s feeble attempts at dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un .
In the 2019 episode, South Korean officials said the two North Koreans were on the run after “killing” the captain and 15 other fishermen in a mutiny on the high seas when their boat was captured by South Korean naval commandos. Moon’s government did not view them as defectors or refugees, but as “horrible criminals” who should be sent back to North Korea.
mr. Yoon’s aides say the two North Korean men should have been accepted as defectors, as South Korea’s constitution requires all Koreans to be treated as equal citizens. They said the men should have been tried in a South Korean court or at least a hearing and given a chance to appeal the government’s decision to deport them north, where many experts believe that they have been executed.
“The two men’s desperate resistance to pushback, so clearly visible in those photos, shows that they understood that they were fighting for their lives,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “Moon Jae-in and his officials knew that too, and yet they sent them back in what was a disgusting and heartless disregard for human rights.”
The Seoul Ministry of Unification initially defended the decision of the government under Mr Moon. It has reversed itself under Mr Yoon, calling the decision “wrong” last week.
Last week, prosecutors raided the office of the National Intelligence Service; the agency has charged two former directors who served under Mr Moon with ordering a premature termination of the 2019 investigation and with destroying intelligence about the murder of the South Korean fisheries official.
Mr Moon’s office said the former president had no comment.
Moon’s former top aides, as well as his Democratic Party, which has a parliamentary majority, said information gathered from the North Korean military’s intercepted communications in 2020 had made it clear that the fisheries official was trying to defect to the north. In the other case, they called the two North Korean men “macabre assassins” who would have been a threat to the South Koreans.
Even if the two were tried in a South Korean court, prosecutors would have had no choice but to release them because all of the criminal evidence was in North Korea, said Youn Kun-young, a senior presidential aide led. from mr. Moon, who is now a legislator. Both men, he said, had confessed to the crime.
North Korea’s state propaganda website Uriminzokkiri said last week that Mr. Yoon’s conservative government attacked the Moon government to divert attention from its “ignorance and incompetence.”