Presidential office hits back at ex-FM Chung over repatriation of N.K. fishermen

SEOUL– The office of President Yoon Suk-yeol immediately struck back at former Foreign Minister and National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong on Sunday after he defended the previous administration’s 2019 repatriation of two North Korean fishermen against their will.

Chung said earlier Sunday the then government of President Moon Jae-in determined the North Koreans’ expression of a desire to defect as insincere and decided to deport them, as they had confessed to killing 16 fellow crew members.

Chung also said the North Koreans “were rare, grotesque killers.”

“Some claim that we had to accept them into our society as defectors in accordance with our Constitution,” he said in a statement. “However, our domestic law stipulates that nonpolitical criminals, like them, should be deported without being allowed into the country. Nonpolitical serious criminals are also not considered refugees under international law.”

Just hours later, Choi Young-bum, senior presidential secretary for press affairs, hit back at Chung.

“What officials of the previous administration and the opposition party should do is not to engage in a political offensive, but to cooperate faithfully with the investigation,” Choi said.

Choi also criticized Chung for portraying the North Koreans as “grotesque killers,” accusing him of making such a characterization without a proper investigation of them.

“It is also nonsense to say that they had no intentions to defect,” Choi said. “Then why did they ignore the letters of intention to defect these people wrote on their own? The point in this case is that the North Korean defector fishermen were sent back to the field of death when they had to be dealt with in accordance with our law.”

In 2019, the North Koreans were captured near the sea border in the East Sea. They confessed to killing 16 fellow crew members and expressed a desire to defect to South Korea, but the then Moon Jae-in government deemed their intentions to be insincere and sent them back to the North.

The repatriation is one of the suspicious cases involving the former administration that President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government is revisiting, along with the North’s killing of a South Korean fisheries official near the western sea border in 2020.

Criticism of the repatriation escalated last week after the unification ministry released 10 photos of the North Koreans being dragged across the inter-Korean border and handed over to the North, apparently against their will.

With controversy escalating over the matter, the ministry handling inter-Korean affairs said Sunday it has confirmed that one of its officials has a video clip on the repatriation process and is now considering whether to make public the clip.

“The video was personally shot by a staff member and is not officially under the control of the unification ministry, so a review is under way to look into the legal aspects of submitting it to parliament and others,” the ministry said.

Critics have accused the then Moon administration of sending them back to their homeland in an effort to curry favor with Pyongyang so as to help move the stalled inter-Korean peace process forward.

In the statement, Chung also dismissed as “extremely absurd” allegations that the Moon government deported them to create a favorable atmosphere for inviting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to a special summit between South Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

“The government determined that in consideration of the timing and method of their expression of a desire to defect, their intentions were insincere,” Chung said. “By any means, we could not view it as a normal course of defection.”

Chung also rejected allegations the South repatriated the North Koreans after North Korea requested their repatriation first, stressing that South Korea first asked the North if it was willing to accept the two fishermen before deporting them.

A newspaper report had earlier alleged that the North informed the then presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae, that a fishing boat carrying North Koreans was heading to South Korea and the notification could be seen as an order for the South to capture and repatriate them.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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