Moon govt covered up, distorted 2020 official’s death by North: Audit

Relevant South Korean agencies ‘sat idle and did not take any action,’ findings show.
By Taejun Kang for RFA
2023.12.07
Taipei, Taiwan
Moon govt covered up, distorted 2020 official’s death by North: Audit North Korean policemen gesture as they ask a North Korean fishing boat to stop for inspection on the Yalu River near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, July 7, 2013.
Jacky Chen/Reuters

South Korea’s state audit agency on Thursday released the final results of its inspection into the 2020 death of a South Korean fisheries official at the hands of North Korea, concluding that the then Moon Jae-in administration did little to save him and covered up and distorted facts related to the case.

Following a year-long investigation into the Moon administration’s handling of the incident involving the killing of Lee Dae-jun by North Korea’s military near the inter-Korean maritime border in the Yellow Sea on Sept. 22, 2020, the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) concluded that the Moon government acted negligently.

The BAI found that there was no action taken prior to Lee’s death and that the administration subsequently covered up the incident, hastily concluding that Lee had attempted to defect to the North, after North Korea murdered the official and burned his body.

All the relevant agencies, such as the presidential National Security Office (NSO), the Coast Guard, the unification and defense ministries, and the country’s spy agency National Intelligence Service (NIS), virtually sat idle and did not take any action even before Lee’s death, the BAI revealed. 

BAI findings

The fisheries official disappeared at 1:58 a.m. on Sept. 21, 2020, approximately 2.2 km (1.4 miles) south of Soyeonpyeong Island in Ongjin County, Incheon. More than 37 hours later, at 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 22, he was located by a North Korean vessel near Kuwolbong, Kangryong County in the North’s South Hwanghae Province, which is 27 km away from his initial disappearance point. The South Korean military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JSC) were informed about finding Lee at 4:43 p.m., and they subsequently reported this to the NSO at 5:18 p.m.

However, the NSO, the de facto national crisis management control tower, did not share the report with the unification ministry and other agencies, let alone hold an initial situation assessment meeting.

Suh Hoon, then chief of the NSO, left work early, and a senior NSO official responsible for managing the national crisis also left work at 7:30 p.m., even though the situation was not over, said the BAI. 

The Coast Guard was informed by the NSO around 6 p.m, but they did not pursue further details or seek essential collaboration from the defense ministry. Simultaneously, a high-ranking official in the unification ministry was alerted about the situation by the NIS. However, this official did not relay the information to either the minister or the vice minister.

The defense ministry received a report from the JCS but did not evaluate whether to communicate with North Korea or consider potential military actions. Additionally, the ministry did not make any recommendations to the NSO.

‘Covered up, distorted facts’

Following the shooting and burning of Lee, the involved organizations manipulated and erased data to cover up the facts and intentionally emphasized his potential defection to the North, according to the BAI.

During a meeting with key ministers at 1 a.m. on Sept. 23, the NSO provided instructions on securing the details about the burning of Lee’s body. At 2:30 a.m., the defense ministry instructed the JCS to erase the confidential information related to the incident.

The unification ministry incorrectly informed parliament and the media that it only learned of the incident on the morning of Sept. 23, despite having been informed by the NIS on the afternoon of Sept. 22.

Furthermore, the Moon administration repeatedly announced to the public that Lee had chosen to defect to North Korea of his own accord.

“Not only was [the former government’s announcement] untrue, but it also unfairly disclosed the personal details of the victim, Mr. Lee,” said the BAI in the statement. 

The audit agency announced in October last year the interim conclusions of its investigation and called for the prosecution to investigate 20 individuals, including the former defense minister, former National Security Adviser Suh Hoon, and the former NIS chief Park Jie-won, with court trials currently in progress. 

In the final findings, the BAI recommended disciplinary actions or warnings for 13 individuals involved in illegal and unfair conduct, suggesting their personnel records be marked in a way that could disadvantage their future reemployment in government roles. It also advised relevant public agencies to be vigilant. Among the 13 are former Defense Minister Suh Wook and former Coast Guard Commissioner Gen. Kim Hong-hee.

Edited by Mike Firn. 

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