South Korea forced to retract unfounded claim that fisherman killed by North was trying to defect

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South Korea’s coast guard announced on Thursday that there is no evidence to suggest that a fisheries official who had been killed by North Korean troops in 2020 intended to defect.

“Field investigations were conducted without ruling out various possibilities, including the deceased official’s defection to North Korea, but no evidence was found to confirm his intention to defect,” said Park Sang-chun, head of the Incheon Coast Guard, in a news conference, reported Yonhap news agency.

The fisheries department official, Lee Dae-jun, had gone missing at sea in September 2020 while working as a fishing inspector.

North Korean soldiers shot him, poured petrol on his body and set it alight, South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, had said citing intelligence gathered by surveillance equipment and other assets.

The South Korean military and the Coast Guard had later cited Lee’s gambling debt and other intelligence and announced that he appeared to be trying to defect to the North.

The allegation however was denied by Lee’s family.

On Thursday, while announcing a reversal of its earlier announcement, the Incheon coast guard chief also issued an apology to Lee’s family.

Yoon Hyung-jin, a defence ministry official also issued an apology, reported Reuters.

“As a result of reinvestigation, we could not verify the missing official voluntarily went to the North, but I can clearly say that there was evidence that the North Korean troops shot him dead and burned his body,” Mr Yoon said.

In May, South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk-yeol had met Lee’s family and promised to ensure justice.

“It is a welcome development that the new government is finally moving ... to correct the mean-spirited blame game against the late Lee Dae-jun,” Ethan Hee-seok Shin, a legal analyst who works with Lee’s family was quoted as saying.

The family is planning to file a suit against those who conducted the initial probe.

While the Lee family has filed suits, key information related to the case cannot be disclosed as it has been archived as part of the previous Moon administration’s classified presidential records that are not released to the public for 15 years.

President Yoon’s office said that it has withdrawn the previous government’s appeal for a lower court ruling that allowed the disclosure of some documents owned by the presidential office and coast guard.

(Additional reporting by agencies)

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