In 2020, a South Korean fisheries official is killed in North Korean waters. Soldiers shot and burned the man. Two years later, the mysterious case has become a political issue in South Korea. It’s supposed to be a cover-up from the top.
It is September 21, 2020. Lee Dae-jun, an official with South Korea’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, is on board the Mugunghwa No. 10, a fisheries inspection boat. At around 1:30 a.m. he leaves the wheelhouse and tells his colleagues that he wants to do some paperwork.
At this time, the No. 10 Mugunghwa is located about 1.9 kilometers (1.2 mi) south of the Yeonpyeong Islands in South Korean waters. The islands are right on the border with North Korea, on the west side of the Korean peninsula.
A good ten hours later, the crew notices that Lee is missing. A search follows – without success. The South Korean Coast Guard is alerted.
26 hours after Lee, 47, was last seen, a North Korean ship spotted the officer about 38 kilometers from the scene of his disappearance in North Korean waters. The North Koreans throw a rope to Lee, but do not take him on board. Instead, they interrogate him as he floats in the water. After three hours, the exhausted officer lets go. It takes the North Koreans two hours to find him again.
First claim: Lee fled to North Korea because of debt
At around 9:40 p.m., the North Koreans shoot the fisheries official in the water. Minutes later, they douse him with gasoline and set Lee on fire.
That’s what it says in one Report of the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG), a South Korean NGO working against human rights violations. The TJWG is investigating, for example Murders under the rule of Kim Jong-unNorth Korea’s dictator.
The South Korean military held a press conference two days after Lee’s death. It is reported that North Korea carried out a shoot-to-kill order for trespassing – and that Lee Dae-jun attempted to defect to North Korea. The alleged reason for this: gambling debts.
North Korea’s ruler Kim Jong-un apologized a day after the press conference in a letter confirming media reports surrounding the killing. “I have apologetic thoughts to President Moon Jae-in and the compatriots of the South for the unfortunate incident that occurred in our waters,” Kim is quoted as saying.
Kim Jong-un apologizes to South Korea
According to the statement, the North Korean military surveyed the area and shot an unidentified man who was on a “floating device” at the time and had only announced that he was from South Korea.
The man did not identify himself and the North Korean troops fired two blank cartridges. The man then made moves that led the soldiers to believe he might flee, after which the soldiers fired about 10 rounds at the man, the letter from the north said. The soldiers then approached the “floating device” but only found “a large amount of blood” but not the man.
According to the communiqué, the “floating device” was burned on site in accordance with North Korea’s current quarantine measures. Further details of the mysterious case are still in the dark. The family of the killed Lee doubts the official information.
Lee Dae-jun’s family seeks clarification on his death
Two years later, this very case is a political issue in South Korea. Even President Yoon Suk-yeol is involved in the investigation. Several questions arise: what really happened when Lee Dae-jun was killed? Was the case mishandled? And to what extent was the government at the time involved in cover-ups?
The investigation started in June this year when the Lees family filed a criminal complaint against former national security adviser Suh Hoon, blaming him for saying their loved one tried to flee north.
Lee’s older brother, Lee Rae-jin, has accused Suh of influencing the government’s 2020 investigative findings, South Korea News Agency reports Yonhap. He and his family, including the widow, say they will file a complaint against Suh for obstruction in the performance of public duties. He accuses the country’s former president, Moon Jae-in, of not having done anything to save his brother.
A few days later, the Lees family announced that they wanted to uncover Moon’s role in the 47-year-old’s death. She requests access on secret documents of the President, which the Presidential Archive initially rejected.
Even South Korea’s president is getting involved
Now President Yoon Suk-yeol is getting personally involved in the case. He suggests his government could release more information about the death; the ruling People Power Party (PPP) set up a commission of inquiry. Earlier, the government overturned the previous government’s conclusion that the official was attempting to flee north, as Yonhap reported.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s coast guard apologizes. Both the Coast Guard and the Department of Defense previously announced that they had not found any circumstances supporting the investigation findings from two years ago, they said Yonhap.
Then it goes in quick succession: beginning of July South Korea’s state espionage agency is requesting a formal investigation by prosecutors into allegations that two of its former bosses mishandled controversial incidents involving North Korea a few years earlier. It is about the illegal deletion of intelligence reports in connection with the death of Lee Dae-jun.
A few days later there are raids on the state secret service. In August The homes of three former senior national security officials are searched, as well as military units from the Ministry of Defense and the Korean Ministry Coast Guard.
Ex-President Moon locked files for 15 years
At the September 1 Finally, prosecutors search the presidential archives during a raid. Materials related to the Lee case should be confiscated.
“This is good news,” Lee Rae-jin, brother of the dead man, told the South Korean news portal “NK News” to the raid. “Hopefully the raid will result in disclosure of the decision-making process at what was then the President’s Blue House and will uncover anything that may have been hidden or tampered with.”
However, following a court decision in 2021, Moon Jae-in had by presidential order protected some documents in the case from the public for 15 years, the newspaper said “Korea Joongang Daily” reported. In South Korea, a two-thirds majority is needed to open these sealed files earlier. Moon’s party, the Democratic Party (DP), currently holds the majority in parliament. That could only change in the 2024 election. Barring approval from the National Assembly, only a search warrant issued by a South Korean Supreme Court judge can release the president’s records, the newspaper said “The Korean Herald” writes.
“The Door of Truth is Gradually Opening”
The sealing of the documents by the Moon government is now being challenged before the Constitutional Court, according to the Herald. By releasing the recordings, the family hopes to get answers – and hold ex-government officials and North Korea accountable.
“What we want is just the plain truth about what really happened to him,” Lee’s widow said in an interview with The Herald. Regarding the allegations that her husband fled to North Korea, she says: “I think it’s such a serious allegation without any evidence and I haven’t seen any evidence.”
According to “NK News” information, Lee Rae-jin wanted to fly to the USA on September 13th. There he wanted to testify before Congress in Washington DC on the case of his brother at the invitation of members of parliament who deal with human rights issues in North Korea.
According to the “Korea Times” Says Lee Rae-jin on the death of his brother Lee Dae-jun: “After many cries and efforts, the door of truth is gradually opening.”
Sources: Yonhap News Agency, The Korean Herald, The Korea Times, NK News, Korea JoongAng Daily, Transitional Justice Working Group