South Korea vows probe of 2019 North Korean repatriations

·3-min read

The South Korean government on Wednesday slammed the controversial 2019 repatriation of two North Koreans, after releasing photos that appeared to show one of them resisting the handover.

Then-president Moon Jae-in's administration had expelled the men after investigators said the pair murdered 16 crewmates before taking their fishing boat to South Korean waters.

The government said at the time that the men -- described by officials as "dangerous criminals" -- had no intent to defect. At least two officials said the pair did not want to stay in South Korea.

But images of their transfer at the truce village of Panmunjom, released on Tuesday by the new, conservative government, showed one man desperately resisting the handover.

If they were "forcibly sent" to North Korea, it would be "a crime against humanity that violates both international law and the Constitution," President Yoon Suk-yeol's spokeswoman Kang In-sun told reporters.

The government will "fully determine the truth behind this case", she said.

One image showed a man collapsed on the ground, with officials apparently dragging him to the Military Demarcation Line between the two Koreas.

In other photos, the two men appeared tied with ropes and blindfolded before their repatriation.

Rights groups have said in the past that the transfer was a violation of international law because of the likelihood of the men being tortured or worse in North Korea.

South Korean media had reported at the time that the two men were blindfolded on their journey and only became aware of their fate when their masks were removed to reveal North Korean soldiers ready to take them into custody.

One of them immediately collapsed, the conservative Chosun Ilbo had reported.

- 'Disgusting and callous' -

The hawkish Yoon has been sharply critical of his predecessor's dovish approach, accusing the liberal Moon of appeasing Pyongyang.

The 2019 case was the first-ever transfer from the South to the North since the end of the Korean War.

It was roundly condemned at the time as a breach of law by human rights groups, which also accused Moon of trying to curry favour with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Under the South Korean constitution, all North Koreans are automatically considered citizens, and those who reach its territory and express a desire to defect are routinely able to stay.

A Moon government official said in 2019 that the two men were sent back because they would "pose a threat" to society, and that as "dangerous criminals" they could not be considered refugees.

And Kim Yeon-chul, Moon's unification minister, told lawmakers at the time that the fishermen did not want to stay. He said they told South Korean authorities: "Even if we die, we'd like to die in our home country."

But Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Wednesday that the men's "desperate resistance to being forced back" was clear in the newly released photos.

He accused Moon -- a former human rights lawyer -- and his administration of having "a disgusting and callous disregard for human rights".

The photos show that the deported men "understood they were fighting for their lives", Robertson added.

Since Yoon took office in May, prosecutors have reopened the case.

And last week, South Korea's intelligence agency also requested a formal investigation into allegations that its former chief under Moon, Suh Hoon, ordered the premature closure of an internal investigation into the matter.

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