Arrest warrants have been issued for South Korea’s former defence minister and coast guard chief over their alleged involvement in a cover-up related to North Korea’s killing of a South Korean fisheries official in 2020.
The Seoul Central District Court issued the warrants on Saturday for former Defence Minister Suh Wook and former Coast Guard Commissioner General Kim Hong-hee, citing risks of the suspects fleeing or destroying evidence.
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Last week, South Korea’s investigative agency, the Board of Audit and Inspection, demanded prosecutors probe a total of 20 people, including Suh and Kim, for allegedly covering up key facts related to the 2020 killing of 47-year-old fisheries official, Lee Dae-jun, by North Korean border soldiers.
The agency said its investigation into a previous government’s handling of the killing revealed officials made no meaningful attempt to rescue Lee after learning that he was drifting in waters near the North Korean border.
The investigation revealed that Lee was left in the water for nearly six hours and had drifted in and out of consciousness after being found and shot by North Koreans.
The South Korean coast guard and navy were also found to have violated rules during their initial rescue efforts by failing to seek help from other vessels and authorities nearby Lee’s location.
After confirming Lee had been shot and killed by North Korean troops, officials in the previous administration of President Moon Jae-in publicly played up the possibility the victim had tried to defect to North Korea.
Officials played up the slain man’s gambling debts and other family issues, while also withholding evidence suggesting he had no intention to defect to North Korea, the agency said.
The killing took place at a time when Moon was facing intense political pressure over a renewed push to engage politically with Pyongyang.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un also issued an apology after the killing of the South Korean. In a formal letter sent to Seoul, North Korea conveyed Kim’s message that he felt “very sorry” for “disappointing” South Korea’s then-President Moon.
According to the investigation report, Suh, under the direction of Moon’s national security office, instructed an official to delete about 60 military intelligence reports related to the incident as the government delayed a public announcement of Lee’s death while debating how to explain it to the public.
The agency also said the coast guard under Kim had manipulated the results of simulations of Lee’s drifting to buttress the claim he had tried to defect.
Suh and Kim did not answer reporters’ questions about the allegations on Friday as they appeared at the court hours apart for reviews on the prosecution’s warrant requests.
The opposition liberal Democratic Party, which claims the investigations are being driven by President Yoon Suk-yeol’s political vendetta against his predecessor Moon Jae-in, had no immediate comment on the arrests.
Yoon’s government is also investigating the 2019 forced repatriation of two North Korean fishermen despite their reported wish to resettle in South Korea.
Critics say Moon’s government never provided a clear explanation as to why it had sent the two escapees back to North Korea to face possible execution.
Dozens of international organisations, including Human Rights Watch, issued a joint statement accusing Moon’s government of failing to provide due process and “protect anyone who would be at substantial risk of torture or other serious human rights violations after repatriation”.