Gov't Claim That Slain Official Wanted to Defect Crumbles

  • By Yang Seung-sik, Kim Kyeong-pil

    October 08, 2020 12:11

    New findings cast more doubt on a flimsy government claim that a South Korean official who was brutally killed by North Korean soldiers wanted to defect.

    A key part of the government's story, which many suspect is a cover for its failure to save the man's life and for hushing up the incident for two days, is that the man left his shoes behind when he disappeared from a fisheries patrol boat on Sept. 21.

    The logic is that a man would not have taken his shoes off if he had he accidentally fallen overboard. But main opposition People Power Party lawmaker Hong Moon-pyo and the Chosun Ilbo have learned that the official's shoes have never been found on the boat.

    In fact, the man only left behind a pair of indoor slippers, while the shoes he wore when he boarded the ship are nowhere to be found.

    A pair of slippers believed to belong to a South Korean official who was killed at sea by North Korean soldiers is stored amid a pile of ropes on the fisheries patrol boat he worked on. /Yonhap

    When the Joint Chiefs of Staff finally briefed reporters about the killing on Sept. 24, they said it is "highly likely" the official attempted to defect because he left his shoes behind on the ship's deck and wore a life vest.

    The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said the same day, "It is unlikely that he accidentally lost his footing judging by how neatly he had placed his shoes." The ministry even published a picture of the slippers stashed amid a pile of ropes.

    But his colleagues said it is absurd to think that he shuffled around on board in a pair of slippers. "The ship is our office, and no one goes to work wearing a pair of slippers," one crewmember said.

    Crew said fisheries officials normally wear boots to protect their feet from falling objects if the ship pitches violently. The slain official was on night duty from midnight until 4 a.m. but no other shoes that belonged to him were found on the ship.

    "On Sept. 27, the Korea Coast Guard collected all of the official's belongings that were stored onboard, but I was briefed by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries that there were no shoes found that he wore when he boarded," Hong said.

    There was another pair of slippers in addition to the pair that the government claims were his, and they have been sent to the National Forensic Service for DNA analysis. The test results were out early this month, but the government has yet to announce them.

    A Korea Coast Guard source said, "We cannot reveal the information, since the case is still under investigation." The Chosun Ilbo has learned that none of the 16 crewmembers were able to identify the discovered slippers as belonging to the slain official.

    Meanwhile, Defense Minister Suh Wook admitted in a National Assembly audit on Wednesday that South Korea could have sent an SOS to North Korea through an international communication network of commercial vessels to rescue the official. But Suh added that there were "risks" to asking North Korea to rescue the official as it would reveal how it gathers intelligence and expose security assets.

    Suh also admitted that he was briefed in the initial phase of the incident that there was "no possibility of a defection to North Korea." That suggests the government suspected that the official had fallen overboard accidentally but invented the defection story to cover its back.

    The man was picked up in North Korean waters on the morning of Sept. 22 and apparently kept in the freezing water by his captors for another six hours before they shot him dead, doused the body in fuel and incinerated it.

    President Moon Jae-in then sat on the story for two days until he had safely delivered a pre-recoded speech to a virtual session of the UN General Assembly in which he proposed a peace treaty with North Korea.

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