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South Korea’s Cycle of Political Revenge or Belated Justice?

Unanswered questions on the forceful deportation of the North Korean fishermen.

Image 1. Forceful deportation of the North Korean fishermen by South Korea on November 7th, 2019. Image courtesy of the Ministry of Unification of the Republic of Korea.

The persecution of former administrations post-mandate is akin to a rite of passage for newly elected South Korean Presidents. Except for Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide while being investigated, all former elected Presidents, from Chun Doo-hwan to Park Geun-hye, have either been indicted for corruption, bribery and embezzlement or have had family members arrested for financial scandals related to the Presidency. To this day, all former South Korean Presidents have undergone some form of investigation. The last person to join the long list of former-Presidents-turned-(alleged)-criminals is Moon Jae-in. But this time is different. Moon is being investigated neither for corruption nor embezzlement; his administration is under scrutiny for the November 2019 repatriation of two fishermen from North Korea (Smith, 2022).

On November 2nd, 2019, the South Korean Navy apprehended two North Korean fishermen who were sailing in South Korean waters(Koo, 2022). Shortly after being captured, both individuals admitted to murdering 16 people and throwing their bodies into the sea before defecting to the South (Shin, 2019). At that moment, the administration found itself in a grey legal zone. On the one hand, as per Article 3 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea, “The territory of the Republic of Korea shall consist of the Korean peninsula and its adjacent islands”. Therefore, according to the geopolitical factor of this definition, all citizens of the entire peninsula are citizens of South Korea. On the other hand, South Korean authorities can reject defectors based on national security concerns or crime-related instances to protect the general population and the country (Gallo, 2022). More specifically, the “Protection of Defecting North Korean Residents and Support of Their Settlement Act” of 1997, Article 9, clearly states that “In determining whether or not to provide protection [...] such persons as stipulated in the following sub-paragraphs may not be determined as protected persons. [...] 2. Offenders of nonpolitical, serious crimes such as murder, etc. [...]” (Ministry of Unification, 1997). Despite this, and perhaps due to the fact that the Act contradicts the Constitution, there had not been a single case of forceful repatriation in the past. Moreover, as the deportation occurred within five days, critics support that no sufficient investigation was conducted to determine the specifics of the murder case (Han and Kwak, 2022).

On November 7th, 2019, the men were deported to North Korea through the Joint Security Area of Panmunjom (Koo, 2022), despite the lack of an extradition agreement between the North and the South (BBC, 2019). Nevertheless, the absence of such an agreement is insignificant. What is bewildering is that according to the Constitution, those men were South Koreans. Why and where would a country deport its own citizens? While the where would be hard to answer, keeping the Constitution in mind, the why is considerably easier to resolve. According to the Ministry of Unification, the two men were “insincere” in their quest to defect to the South and wished to do so only to avoid legal consequences in the North after committing a heinous crime (Gallo, 2022). As such, they were deemed dangerous to society and delivered to the North Korean authorities (HRW, 2022).

While some are accusing Moon of bowing down to the North (Kirk, 2022), the implication of the UNC, and possibly the US should not be overlooked, as this incident sets a terrifying precedent not only for North Korean defectors but for human rights in general. The place where the surrender occurred was Panmunjom. Also known as “the Joint Security Area”, it is under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Command (UNC), led by the United States of America (Eighth Army, n.d.). According to the Ministry of Unification, the UNC officers who attended the deportation were unaware that the two men were unwilling to return to North Korea and realised it too late (O'Carroll and Kim, 2022). Be that as it may, the UNC first approved of the repatriation and then, despite witnessing the struggle of the two men, went through with it. Approximately one month after the deportation case resurfaced, there has been no official statement by the UNC or the US Embassy in Seoul. In fact, the role of the UNC, and by extension of the US, has been largely ignored by local and international media. The only pieces of information that have been made public on behalf of the UNC are a video of the deportation, shot by one of the soldiers, and that the agency expressed its irritation with the situation only after the deportation took place (Bae, 2022). While other North Koreans have had their repatriation requests denied both in South Korea (Heo, 2017; Haas, 2018) and abroad or have been jailed for trying to return to the North (Yonhap, 2022), the mere fact that the UNC agreed to facilitate the deportation should be investigated.

Whether the decision was indeed made to protect South Korean citizens from dangerous individuals or to try and salvage Moon’s failed 2018 rapprochement with the North (Gallo, 2022), the undeniable fact is that the administration trampled over the Constitution (Jung, 2022) and broke international law (the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture) by extraditing individuals to a country frequently accused of torturing prisoners. What is more, this act was performed with the blessing of the UNC. As the Yoon administration is investigating, it should guarantee that the ones responsible must answer to justice and if found guilty, face the consequences. The UNC must also take the same decision.

But beyond these legal and ethical considerations, there is another pressing question that no one seems to want to ask. Why is the Yoon administration examining this case now? President Yoon had ample time to question the Moon administration and bring the deportation to light while serving as Prosecutor General between 2019 and 2021. Going after government officials would not have been out of character nor would he have been accused of breaking any party lines. Yoon had played a role in the indictments of former Conservative Presidents Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak. Additionally, a few weeks before the fishermen incident, he had prosecuted Justice Minister Cho Kuk, thereby cutting the former’s career short. As he had the resources and the will to question high-ranking individuals and lay charges, why did he choose not to? And why now?

The explanation given by the Yoon administration is that it received insufficient briefing on the issue from the previous administration, which prompted the current Ministry of Unification to conduct further research. However, others see it as yet another incident of the so-called “cycle of revenge” in South Korean politics, where every administration has been accused of wrongdoing and later indicted. And for some, Yoon going after Moon was only a matter of time (Minegishi, 2022). Given that shortly after the elections his approval ratings started descending, and have currently reached an all-time low of 27.3% (Lee, 2022), this case might have been used as a scapegoat. However, neither the publicity nor the raid of the South Korean National Intelligence Service in early July 2022 (Bremer, 2022) was enough to uplift the plummeting public opinion toward the President.

Image 2: Survey on President Yoon's performance from late May 2022 until early August 2022 (Lee, 2022).

It is still unclear why President Yoon did not act in his full capacity as Prosecutor General during the time of the deportation and whether he will also be investigated for not fulfilling his duties and obligations. It is also unclear how the South Korean government will resolve the state of disarray with the UNC and the US or if their implication will be investigated. As the legal debate continues, all parties involved should be reminded that cases of such importance should not be exploited for the sake of revenge politics or for publicity stunts, and work toward delivering justice. Nevertheless, President Yoon’s unwillingness to appoint a new Prosecutor General for over three months now makes it highly unlikely that this investigation will be concluded anytime soon(Seo, 2022).



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