S Korea opens probe against ex-spy chiefs over N Korea cases

Park Jie-won and Suh Hoon are accused of abuse of power in the handling of two separate border incidents during the administration of Moon Jae-in.

North Korean defectors stage a rally denouncing the deportation of North Korean fishermen in front of the government complex in Seoul, South Korea, November 12, 2019.
North Korean defectors stage a rally denouncing the deportation of North Korean fishermen in front of the government complex in Seoul, South Korea, on November 12, 2019 [File: Ahn Young-joon/ AP}

Prosecutors in South Korea have launched investigations into the conduct of two former spy chiefs who have been accused of abuse of power in cases linked to North Korea during the administration of former President Moon Jae-in.

The announcement on Thursday came a day after the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) filed criminal complaints against the agency’s former directors, Park Jie-won and Suh Hoon.

The NIS accused Park, who headed the agency from 2020 until May 2022, of destroying critical intelligence documents related to the September 2020 shooting death of an unarmed employee of South Korea’s fisheries ministry by North Korea’s coast guard.

The case caused a public uproar when it was revealed that the North Koreans set the employee’s body on fire in a bid to conceal his death.

At the time, the Moon administration claimed the employee was killed near the two countries’ Yellow Sea border while trying to defect to North Korea, but the South Korean Coast Guard dismissed those claims in June, citing a lack of evidence.

In a second complaint, the NIS said Suh, who headed the agency from 2017 to 2020, shut down an investigation into two North Korean fishers who wanted to defect to South Korea in 2019 and were quickly repatriated back to their country.

The case was unusual as the two men were accused of killing 16 co-workers on board their fishing vessel, but they did not stand trial for their crime, and their deportation to North Korea meant almost certain execution.

The case reportedly marked the first time in South Korea’s history that defectors had been rejected and forcibly repatriated, according to local media.

At the time, a Moon official described the pair as “atrocious criminals” who had confessed to the murders and could do potential damage to South Korean society.

During the investigation, Suh allegedly cut down the typical investigation time into a defector’s case from 15 to 30 days to less than a week.

South Korean prosecutors said on Thursday that they will be investigating the cases separately, but their findings could damage Moon’s reputation.

Kim Sung-soo, a policy advisor to Transparency International-Korea, said the allegations are likely to inflame partisan divisions in South Korea, where attitudes toward North Korea often spilt along ideological lines.

“Definitely this will lead to accusations of partisan bias and political witch hunts,” Kim told Al Jazeera. “The North Korea card has always been good witch hunt material for South Korea’s conservative party, whenever they have been in trouble or in a crisis.”

Kim said the case is also likely to be fraught due to the long history of controversy around the sweeping powers afforded to prosecutors, whom left-leaning figures have often accused of political bias and overreach.

Moon, a political liberal, staked his term as president on engaging with North Korea, but critics say his willingness for greater dialogue may have prompted his administration to paper over potential sources of conflict.

He was succeeded by conservative Yoon Suk-yeol in May, who campaigned on a tougher policy towards North Korea and dismissed Moon as too “submissive”. He also hinted following his election that he would reopen the 2019 deportation case.

“The Constitution dictates that defectors are our people too. A lot of people are questioning the legitimacy of the decision to send them back to North Korea, when it’s a duty of the state to protect its people,” Yoon told reporters in June.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies