The cruel return of two fishermen shows why we must stand up to North Korea

The fate of two North Korean fishermen who were forcibly returned to the North in November 2019 has exploded into a scandal that tears at the hearts and minds of anyone looking at images of their transfer at Panmunjom, the truce village 40 miles north of Seoul. Photographs released by Chosun Ilbo, the South’s biggest-selling newspaper, reveal the horror of their resistance as South Korean soldiers thrust them into the hands of North Koreans on the line between the two Koreas.

The significance of their surrender by the appeasement-minded government of former South Korean President Moon Jae-in lies in what it says about Moon’s willingness to bow before the North. The scene has awakened Koreans, and American activists, to the cruelty of a transaction that raises serious questions about the South’s willingness and ability to stand up against the North.

Among the more influential American critics, Congressman Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said he was “shocked and startled” after seeing photographs and video of the fishermen as they were “forced to return to communist North Korea against their will and without due process.” Smith had asked about the case in his capacity as co-chairman of the House’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Committee. “A thorough investigation,” he said, is needed to determine who in the Korean bureaucracy had ordered their return and for what possible justification.

No one seeing the pictures could doubt that the two were “forced to cross the Military Demarcation Line,” Smith noted, while resisting their handover to “a brutal regime.” The incident, he said, “underscores the barbarity of North Korea’s communist regime” together with “the callous complicity of the previous Moon administration.”

Now South Korea’s conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol is demanding full responses from the former top officials involved in this sordid affair. The Korean public, he believes, has the right to comprehend the enormity of what appears to be a betrayal of the process of dealing with North Koreans who make their way to the South by whatever means, for whatever reason.

The case has become a cause celebre for human rights groups in the U.S. and South Korea. The ability of the Yoon government to resolve it has international repercussions. The fishermen appear to have been sacrificed on the altar of appeasement with a dictatorship who has no intention of compromising on anything, notably his nuclear program. Voices in Washington, as in Seoul, are insisting on retribution against the perpetrators of the handover.

David Maxwell, a retired U.S. army colonel who served five tours with the special forces in South Korea, in an interview with Voice of America called the return of the fishermen “a function of the misguided policies of the last administration.” There’s no doubt in Maxwell’s mind that Moon and his aides were “seeking to curry favor with Kim Jong Un and pursue the policy of engagement.” The Moon government, said Suzanne Scholte of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, likely was “complicit in murder.” 

It’s up to Yoon to go after those who placed the desire to appeal to North Korea’s dictatorship above the lives of North Koreans who had arrived in the South, regardless of how or why they got there. At stake is the issue of human rights, as well as South Korean law, under which all defectors as Korean citizens are entitled to due process once they arrive in the South. There are many unanswered questions.

Who would believe the claim, based on North Korean radio traffic monitored in the South, that these two fishermen had killed 16 others on their boat, including the captain? What became of the bodies of all those whom the fishermen are said to have killed? Would not some of them on their small boat have fought the two fishermen after hearing  the cries of the first victim or two? Could every one of them, as alleged, have submitted without a fight? Ridiculous.

Regardless of the real story, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, has stated that returning the two to North Korea “was illegal under international law because of the likelihood they’ll be tortured under North Korea’s extremely brutal legal system.” Greg Scarlatoui, director of the Committee of Human Rights in North Korea, said the South Koreans, by handing them over three days after capturing their boat in South Korean waters, had “issued a death sentence.” The message, he said, was that South Korea “no longer provides a safe haven” for defectors. Daily NK, a website in Seoul with risky mobile phone contacts inside North Korea, has reported the two were beheaded two months after the handover.

The incident provokes the question of how much credibility and confidence Korea’s friends and allies should place in a government that would bow before North Korea in such a dreadful manner. How can Korea’s alliance partner, the United States, and other countries bound to Korea through the United Nations Command believe in the will and power of Korean authorities in their perpetual standoff with North Korea if they are willing to engage in such treachery?

Under Yoon, the investigation has extended to the former directors of the National Intelligence Service. These men were responsible for scaling down intelligence resources on North Korea while conforming to Moon Jae-in’s efforts at compromise and appeasement during his five years as president. To Moon’s people, the deaths of two North Korean fishermen for the sake of reconciliation apparently was a small price to pay.

Yoon, however, was elected president in March by a narrow margin — so narrow that his foes, who command a majority in the National Assembly, are planning their resurgence. If they succeed, some fear they will again try to compromise with the North, yielding in disputes involving the lives of Koreans and the rights of defectors. It is necessary for the Yoon government to fortify the South against such tactics.

The case of the two North Korean fishermen is about much more than their awful fate. It’s also about a regime that was willing to bow before North Korea, betraying not only those two men but all South Koreans in their struggle against the North Korean dictatorship.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs. 

Tags Asylum seeker Chris Smith Moon Jae-in Moon Jae-in North Korea Yoon Suk-yeol

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