Reports shed new light on last hours of S.Korean slain by North in 2020 By Reuters

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© Reuters. Lee Rae-jin, the older brother of a South Korean fisheries official who was fatally shot and burned at sea by North Korean soldiers in 2020, points out where he believed his brother was killed, in a marine chart showing Northern Limit Line (NLL) during an

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By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – An investigation by the government of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is raising fresh questions about the death of a South Korean official in 2020, which the previous administration wrote off as a failed defection attempt.

Documents reviewed by Reuters from a parliamentary inquiry, the coast guard and a human rights watchdog provide previously unpublished details about the final moments of Lee Dae-jin, a state fishery ministry employee who died at sea at the hands of North Korean troops.

The parliamentary report shows that the coast guard failed to follow proper search procedures and that officials delayed sharing the news that he had been captured with other government ministries, which lawmakers say may have cost Lee his life.

Lee’s death has become a sensitive issue in South Korea, in part because of the fight by his brother to clear his name. The previous administration of President Moon Jae-in had portrayed Lee as fleeing gambling debts, mental health issues and an unhappy life.

“There are multiple signs of hasty investigations and conclusions, and few senior officials in the coast guard, not to mention the presidential office and the military, had experience working aboard a ship,” said Ha Tae-keung, a conservative lawmaker from Yoon’s party who led the parliamentary inquiry, which concluded in late August.

Prosecutors are investigating senior Moon administration officials over Lee’s death, including a national security adviser, two former intelligence chiefs, a former defence minister and a resigned head of the coast guard.

An official at the prosecutors’ office, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it had acquired the information in the reports over the course of its work and was considering it in its investigation. Prosecutors on Tuesday filed for arrest warrants against a former defence minister and the former coast guard chief. They are expected to conclude their inquiry in coming weeks.

The Board of Audit and Inspection, a state auditor, said on Oct. 14 that it had asked prosecutors to investigate 20 officials from five agencies on charges of dereliction of duty and violating audit laws, without providing details. At least seven of those officials already face a criminal investigation over allegations that they manipulated findings and botched rescue operations.

Former top officials and Moon’s party have criticised the parliamentary investigation as a witch hunt by Yoon against his political foes.

A group of 21 lawmakers who served in Moon’s government issued a statement in October saying the audit agency and prosecutors had joined forces to “deliberately distort and twist facts” to support “political retaliation” by Yoon’s office.

Yoon’s office said that those authorities operate independently and that it was not involved in their investigations.

Reuters was unable to contact Moon. Youn Kun-young, an opposition lawmaker who represents Moon, said that the initial investigations were based on military intelligence and not hastily conducted, and that Moon should “no longer be harassed for political retaliation.”

BOTCHED RESCUE

On Sept. 22, 2020, Lee’s colleagues reported him missing to a fisheries ministry office, which then informed the coast guard, when he did not show up for meals after a night shift aboard a government vessel monitoring fishing grounds off Korea’s west coast, near the maritime border with North Korea.

The previously undisclosed documents from the parliamentary investigation, citing South Korean military officials, say that after Lee was found by North Koreans, he was kept in the water for nearly six hours as he drifted in and out of consciousness while soldiers interrogated him.

The soldiers lost him at one point, prompting a two-hour search before they found him and shot him to death, then burned his body. About 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 22, the South’s military observed a fire across the border, which lasted 30-40 minutes, and concluded that Lee was dead, according to the investigation.

North Korea said at the time that the country’s troops killed him in line with its COVID-19 rules after he illegally crossed the border and did not properly identify himself.

The parliamentary report concludes that the coast guard and navy violated rules during their initial rescue efforts by failing to seek help from other vessels and authorities nearby.

Although the coast guard said at the time that Lee had tried to swim north against the current – and therefore may have been trying to defect – according to the parliamentary inquiry’s findings, the coast guard only provided part of the government’s oceanographic data, omitting that currents could have carried him north.

After Lee was eventually spotted in North Korean waters, a small group of senior South Korean officials, including Moon’s national security adviser, national intelligence agency chief, and defence minister – all of whom face criminal investigations over Lee’s death – did not tell the foreign and unification ministries until shortly before the government announced his death the next day, Ha and other conservative lawmakers said in their report.

“The government left him to die without adequate rescue efforts, while systematically manipulating evidence to claim his defection, deceiving the public and misleading public opinion,” they said in the report.

The foreign ministry told the lawmakers in June 2021 that if it had known earlier, it could have requested help from dozens of Chinese ships nearby, the report said. The Unification Ministry also said it would have directly contacted the North.

The foreign ministry confirmed to Reuters that it did not learn about Lee’s case until after his death, and that it told lawmakers about the possibility of Chinese help “while replying to a hypothetical question.”

The unification ministry declined to comment, citing the prosecutors’ ongoing investigation.

A QUESTION OF DEFECTION

The defection allegation has haunted Lee’s family, which refused to hold a funeral for him until last month, after the Yoon administration recanted the Moon government’s claims.

Lee’s brother, Lee Rae-jin, said two lawmakers with Moon’s party offered days after his death to set up a fund for his family if he admitted to Lee’s defection. Moon’s party, the Democratic Party of Korea, and the two lawmakers – Hwang Hee and Kim Cheol-min – have publicly denied making that offer.

All seven of Lee’s colleagues told investigators he had no reason to defect as he excelled at work, got along well with others and was uninterested in politics, according to the new documents.

In a previously undisclosed report dated July 2021, the National Human Rights Commission, an independent government body investigating at the request of Lee’s brother, found that the coast guard had overstated Lee’s gambling debt and fabricated its findings when describing his defection as an “escape from reality while in a panic”.

In June 2022, the coast guard apologised for “causing confusion”, and its chief and eight other senior officials resigned. The defence ministry also apologised.

Prosecutors have raided a presidential archive and the offices and homes of two former intelligence chiefs, a former defence minister and the resigned coast guard head.

The audit agency said in its Oct. 14 statement that one of the former spy chiefs, Park Jie-won, is suspected to have deleted an intelligence report that concluded it was impossible to say whether Lee was trying to defect.

Park did not respond to requests for comment. In a Facebook (NASDAQ:) post last week, he denied removing any documents related to the case. He said in an interview with a local broadcaster in August that the raid was aimed at “intimidating and humiliating” him and the investigation is politically motivated.

The audit agency also said Suh Wook, the former defence minister, had ordered dozens of intelligence reports within the Military Intelligence Management System erased in a bid to conceal Lee’s killing.

The defence ministry said Suh’s position is that the intelligence reports were deleted in some channels to prevent irrelevant military units from accessing them, but that the original files were intact.

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