[Editorial] Has South Korea’s Unification Ministry forgotten its purpose?

Posted on : 2022-07-20 17:47 KST Modified on : 2022-07-20 17:47 KST
The ministry’s recent release of footage of the repatriation of two North Koreans shows its willing to let itself become involved in political offensives
This still photo, released by the Ministry of Unification on July 18, shows North Korean fishers being repatriated to North Korea at Panmunjom on Nov. 18, 2019. (provided by the MOU)
This still photo, released by the Ministry of Unification on July 18, shows North Korean fishers being repatriated to North Korea at Panmunjom on Nov. 18, 2019. (provided by the MOU)

The South Korean Ministry of Unification on Monday released a video of the 2019 repatriation of two North Korean fishers. The release of the footage, which was shot by a ministry employee, came six days after photos of the same scene were made public.

Amid strong criticism that the presidential office and the ruling party are using the 2019 repatriation to target the administration of former President Moon Jae-in, it is highly inappropriate for the Ministry of Unification to forget the reason for its existence and take the lead in this political offensive.

The nearly 4 minutes of footage released by the ministry to reporters shows two individuals being handed to North Korea over the Military Demarcation Line at Panmunjom in November 2019.

One of them is seen resisting being sent back to the North and the voices of the security agents saying “grab him” are captured, but the fishermen's voices are not audible.

The unusual disclosure of a video shot personally by an employee at the time, despite it depicting no new facts of the case, raises questions about the ministry’s political intentions.

On July 11, the ministry stated that it “holds the position that there is a clear problem with sending them back to North Korea,” thus reversing its original official judgment regarding this case. The next day, the ministry decided to release photos of the two fishers being deported to North Korea.

Taking the release of such photos as a green-light, the president’s office and the ruling People Power Party ordered a no-stone-unturned investigation into the case, calling it “inhumane” and a “crime against humanity” committed by the Moon administration.

Some analysts say that the current Yoon Suk-yeol government is trying to target the former Moon administration’s inter-Korean summit process, strengthening its offensive by relitigating the cases of the fishers’ repatriation and the public official who was killed off of Korea’s western coast in 2020.

It is irresponsible for the Ministry of Unification to have overturned its decision from three years ago.

In 2019, the ministry said that the fishers were not protected under the North Korean Defectors Protection and Settlement Support Act considering how they killed 16 of their fellow crew members, which was confirmed through interception of communications and investigation, and how they were caught while fleeing for three days to avoid being caught by the Korean Coast Guard.

The ruling and opposition party members of the National Assembly Intelligence Committee, which was chaired by the current ruling party, also agreed with this view at the time.

With its recent about-face, the ministry is only trying to agitate public opinion by releasing photos and videos without giving any concrete or convincing evidence for the change in its position.

In particular, it is very disappointing that Unification Minister Kwon Young-se, a powerful man with extensive diplomatic experience, is dragging the ministry employees into such a political offensive. This is something for officials to feel embarrassed about.

The Ministry of Unification must stop using inter-Korean relations as a strategic tool and instead promote inter-Korean cooperation and recall its duty to manage the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

It is time to listen to public opinion that is becoming colder due to partisan political offensives that ignore what is really important — the people’s livelihood.

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

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