Murdered fishermen spark South Korean repatriation controversy

When South Korean officials boarded a stray North Korean fishing vessel in 2019, they were confronted with 16 corpses, two suspects and an acute political dilemma.

Three years later, footage emerged of the two bound and gagged fishermen, who confessed to killing their fellow crew members, being handed over to the North Korean authorities and near-certain execution.

The resulting controversy has pitted South Korea’s conservative administration against its left-leaning predecessor, raising doubts over South Korea’s respect for human rights, how Seoul handles relations with Pyongyang, and a decades-old cycle of political revenge and recrimination.

“This case is an example of what happens when both the law and the facts are interpreted in a partisan way,” said Jeongmin Kim, lead analyst at Seoul-based information service Korea Pro. “It suggests that South Korean democracy is more dysfunctional than many people assume.”

On Tuesday, prosecutors conducted a series of raids on the homes of directors of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, who served under left-leaning former president Moon Jae-in, over their handling of the fishermen’s repatriation.

According to the South Korean constitution, all Koreans — whether from the North or South — are citizens of the Republic of Korea governed from Seoul. There is no extradition treaty between the two countries.

Defenders of the Moon government, which was in office at the time of the incident, argue that the two fishermen were “heinous criminals”.

They added that their requests to defect had been “insincere” and that the government’s decision to hand them over to North Korea after just three days of investigation was made in the interests of public safety.

But critics point out that the Moon administration was pursuing a policy of engagement with the North at the time of the arrests. They see the decision as an affront to the rule of law, as well as a shameful and misguided capitulation to Pyongyang.

The ultimate fate of the fishermen is unknown. Last month, the administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol, who assumed office in May, accused the former government of committing a “crime against humanity”.

The South Korean public appears split on the issue. A poll conducted by Gongjung Public Opinion Research last month found that 49.9 per cent of respondents considered it was “wrong” to send the fishermen back to North Korea, with 40.2 per cent saying it was right and 9.9 per cent unsure.

Analysts acknowledge the dilemma confronted by the Moon administration when the fishermen crossed the “northern limit line”, or maritime border, into South Korean waters, even as they criticised the decision to go ahead with the repatriation.

“The repatriation itself was fundamentally problematic,” said Jeongmin Kim. “But this was also an unprecedented case, exposing a worrying loophole in the law.”

Yoon, a former prosecutor, built his popularity on a reputation for fearless law enforcement, including the jailing of Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong and Park Geun-hye, the former conservative president, over a bribery scandal.

But experts have questioned both the methods and the motives of his administration in re-igniting the controversy.

The images of the fishermen being handed over to the North Koreans — with one of the men appearing to physically resist his transfer — were published by the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper last month, having been “discovered” by the unification ministry shortly after Yoon assumed office.

Sung Il-jong, a ruling People Power party lawmaker, said that the repatriation proved that “the Moon administration was a friend of the Kim Jong Un regime”.

Karl Friedhoff, a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and an expert in South Korean politics, said that Korean conservatives had long sought to portray their liberal opponents as willing to “sell out” their country’s democratic values and national security.

“They want to show that the progressives are soft on North Korea and will bend over backwards to please Pyongyang,” said Friedhoff.

Observers also note that having argued during the Moon administration that the fishermen had “not been sincere” in their requests to defect, under Yoon the unification ministry abruptly declared that its previous position had been “flawed”.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said that “instead of finding the shortcomings of the law in order to prevent a recurrence [of the fishermen case], the government is finding illegality and punishing those it holds responsible. It is not helpful for anybody.”

Friedhoff added that Yoon’s determination to prioritise “classic Korean revenge politics” over measures to improve living standards amid soaring inflation was alienating Korean voters.

The president’s approval rating has fallen from more than 50 per cent at his inauguration three months ago to just 24 per cent earlier this month, according to pollsters Gallup Korea.

“The qualities that made him a popular prosecutor are making him an unpopular president,” said Friedhoff.

“His decision-making is regarded as unilateral and arbitrary, he doesn’t consult the public, and he seems more interested in punishing people than solving problems — he’s on a very steep learning curve.”

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