[News analysis] Who’s behind ministries’ apologies over cases involving N. Korea?

Posted on : 2022-07-21 16:58 KST Modified on : 2022-07-21 16:58 KST
The Unification Ministry has been the latest to issue a self-negating apology for its prior stance on cases involving North Korea during the Moon Jae-in administration
Park Sang-chun (left), head of the Incheon Coast Guard, and Yun Hyeong-jin, head of the policy planning division of the Ministry of National Defense, bow to reporters after a briefing on June 16 related to the findings of an investigation into the death of a South Korean government official. (Yonhap News)
Park Sang-chun (left), head of the Incheon Coast Guard, and Yun Hyeong-jin, head of the policy planning division of the Ministry of National Defense, bow to reporters after a briefing on June 16 related to the findings of an investigation into the death of a South Korean government official. (Yonhap News)

The Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s foreign policy and security departments — including the Unification Ministry, Foreign Ministry, and the National Defense Ministry — are issuing self-negating apologies regarding the repatriation of two North Korean fishers who murdered 16 fellow crew members as well as the South Korean civil servant who was slain in the West Sea as if they are locked in a competition of overdone theatrics.

Why are the Yoon administration’s Unification Ministry, Foreign Ministry, National Defense Ministry, and National Intelligence Service (NIS) so intent on self-reflection? Retracing what happened in the last month offers clues as to who the “scriptwriter” and the “director” of the histrionics at hand are.

On June 16, the Ministry of National Defense made the announcement that it “regretted having caused confusion among the public,” aligning its position with the Coast Guard’s announcement of its final investigation result, which indicated that the Coast Guard “did not find evidence to demonstrate a motivation for defection” regarding the civil servant who went missing in the waters of the West Sea.

What’s noteworthy is the text message the National Defense Ministry sent to reporters in the name of its spokesperson’s office at the time. The text message read, “The National Defense Ministry was handed down guidelines on how to respond to key issues related to the incident from the Blue House National Security Office on Sept. 27, 2020.” The statement hinted that the National Defense Ministry had made the judgment it made two years ago due to pressure from the Blue House.

Based on what was written as part of the text message, the bereaved family members of the civil servant charged the former director of the National Security Office, Suh Hoon, asking authorities to “figure out whether the case was manipulated as that of defection to the North due to the guidelines regarding defection handed down by the National Security Office.” In other words, official press material from the National Defense Ministry had been used as the basis of the bereaved family members’ criminal complaint to the prosecution service.

On July 6, the NIS filed criminal complaints against two of its former directors, Park Jie-won and Suh Hoon, to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, the former for the case involving the civil servant and the latter for the case involving the fishers. Two weeks before this was reported by the media, Yoon had stated during an informal press conference during his commute that regarding the case involving the fishers, “the public is doubtful and has raised a lot of concerns regarding the [forced] repatriation, and it seems like [the case] is being looked into.”

This indicates that the NIS’s criminal complaints against two of its former directors may have been spurred on by the president himself. At the time the former NIS directors were consecutively charged with criminal complaints, the People Power Party’s fact-finding task force regarding the slain civil servant had just begun its activities.

In other words, the ruling party, the administration, and the president had commenced an attack against the previous administration from three different angles.

Five days after the NIS’s criminal complaints, the Unification Ministry joined in on the attack. Unification Ministry spokesperson Cho Joong-hoon stated during a press conference on July 11, “The Unification Ministry holds the position that there is a clear problem with sending [the two North Korean residents] back to North Korea, considering that the defected North Koreans are acknowledged as South Korean citizens under the Constitution and the various hardships they would face if they were handed over to North Korea.”

After reporting the case to the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee as that of the “deportation of violent North Korean criminals” on Nov. 15, 2019, the Unification Ministry reversed its characterization of the case from three years ago by 180 degrees, designating it as a case of “forced repatriation of North Korean fishers.”

Cho explained that, at the time, “the Unification Ministry was requested to hold a press briefing [regarding the case] by the Office of National Security,” hinting that just like the National Defense Ministry, the Unification Ministry is holding that the repatriation was ordered by the Moon Jae-in administration’s Blue House National Security Office.

In fact, the Unification Ministry’s self-dissociative characterization of the case involving the fishers was foreseen. Unification Minister Kwon Young-se, who previously served as the vice chairman of Yoon’s presidential transition committee, repeatedly stated during his confirmation hearing at the National Assembly on May 12 that “[the Moon administration’s forced deportation] had parts that were clearly wrong and should be condemned.”

On June 21, when Yoon said that the “public has doubts” regarding the case of the fishers, high-ranking officials of the Unification Ministry met with reporters and stated, “forced repatriation is wrong and may involve criminal offense in some cases.” The mention that “criminal offense” may have been involved, in hindsight, seems more like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On July 12, immediately after it began newly characterizing the case involving the fishers as that of “forced repatriation,” the Unification Ministry released to the media 10 still photos capturing the repatriation of the fishers that took place at Panmunjom, saying they were requested for submission by the National Assembly. Two days later, Kang In-sun, the presidential spokesperson, called for a thorough investigation by the prosecution service, stating that the repatriation was “an inhumane criminal act that violated both international law and the constitution.”

With the National Defense Ministry, the NIS, and the Unification Ministry’s change of attitude, the Foreign Ministry also came up with a “letter of apology.” On Friday, the ministry stated regarding the case involving the fishers, “The response letter the [Moon] administration submitted as part of a co-signed letter to the UN Human Rights Council did indeed include content that was lacking or inappropriate considering the universal standards of international human rights norms. [. . .] As the ministry in charge of foreign relations, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regrets that it did not more proactively participate in the writing of the response letter.”

Unlike the National Defense Ministry and the Unification Ministry, which found their excuse in the Blue House National Security Office, the Foreign Ministry expressly stated that it did not proactively participate in the process, emphasizing its non-responsibility.

Unlike the National Defense Ministry and the Unification Ministry, which read their “letter of apology” in front of cameras, the Foreign Ministry sent a text message containing the above message to reporters instead.

The most theatrical out of the various ministries to reverse its position turned out to be the Unification Ministry, as it released to the media on Monday a video personally shot by one of its staff members who works at the Panmunjom liaison office, saying it was requested for submission by the National Assembly. Choi Yeong-beom, Yoon’s senior presidential secretary for press affairs, had stressed that “the Yoon administration will take all measures against inhumane acts” regarding the Moon administration’s Blue House two days prior to the release of the video footage.

The sudden change in attitude by the Unification Ministry has led to aghast responses from even within the Unification Ministry itself, with its labor union stating that the attitude change “have a negative effect on the pursuit of consistent and credible unification policies going forward.”

Every instance of controversy surrounding the cases of the fishers and the civil servant since the Yoon administration kicked off seems to have accompanied three concurrent factors: the submission of apology letters by foreign policy and security ministries; the presidential office’s urgings to rediscover the facts; and the battle to sway public opinion waged by the People Power Party.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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