Interview: ‘It Has Been Four Weeks Since He Went Missing but It Feels Like 40 Years.’

A South Korean fisheries official was shot and killed last month after North Korean soldiers found him drifting near the inter-Korean border in waters west of the Korean peninsula, a tragic incident that prompted North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un to issue a rare apology. Lee Dae-jun, 47 had gone missing on Sept. 21 from his post aboard a fisheries vessel sent out to monitor South Korean crab catches. He is believed to have drifted in the water for around 30 hours before the soldiers shot him, then incinerated his body in what the North says was a measure to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Following an investigation, South Korean authorities said it was likely that Lee was trying to defect to the North because he was in a bad financial situation. Since the incident, the late official’s older brother Lee Rae-jin told media that the family rejects the notion that he was fleeing to the North to get out of paying his debts. In addition, the family has requested an independent inquiry from the United Nations to clarify what happened on Sept. 22. RFA’s Korean Service interviewed Lee to find out how his family is dealing with the incident, and what particular issues they hope a UN inquiry will solve. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. RFA: On September 21, your brother was reported missing, and on the 24th there was an announcement that he was shot dead by the North Korean troops. It was a major shock to the entire South Korean society, but I cannot imagine how it must have devastated your family. How are they doing? Lee: My brother’s youngest child still believes her father is going to bring her a gift when he comes back home. The eldest child, a high school junior, is aware of the incident. Right now, his school is in the middle of an exams so he comes back home right after the morning classes but shortly after the incident he could not go to school at all in the beginning, and his friends have been talking about it behind his back. RFA: How are your parents doing? Lee: My father passed away earlier and my mother is still living but is suffering dementia. RFA: That must be hard, but it is probably better that she does not know what happened to him. Lee: I think it is a good thing. My brother often brought home flower crabs for her that he picked up at work. She keeps saying that his crabs are so tasty. RFA: It must be painful to hear her say that. Lee: Indeed. It has been four weeks since he went missing but it feels like 40 years. RFA: I heard you visited the search site after your brother was reported missing on September 21. How was the search going? Lee: At around 4:30 p.m. on the 21st, I was notified that he went missing. At 8 a.m. on the 22nd, I went to Yeonpyeong Island and at about 10 a.m., I boarded the ship where he was last seen. After checking my brother’s slippers and his bed, I joined the search. There was only one helicopter mobilized for the search. After the news of his death, they mobilized six helicopters. Up to 23 naval vessels participated in the search at one point but what is the use of bringing thousands of vessels when my brother is already dead? RFA: In the morning of the 24th, the Joint Chiefs of Staff officially announced that the missing person was shot dead. Did you hear the news in the middle of the search? Lee: I saw the news while on board. The announcement was very short. At that time, I did not carefully reconstruct what exactly had happened to him but thinking of it now, the primary cause of his death could have been cardiac arrest and drowning. Being shot could have been a secondary cause. The North Korean military officials were reported to have briefly interrogated my brother after which they dragged him by a rope for two hours. Drifting at sea for about 30 hours would leave anybody completely exhausted. Even a physically fit man would end up inhaling a lot of sea water if he was dragged around for over two hours. My brother must have been near the point of drowning because he was nearly fainting. RFA: On the 24th, the announcement shocked the entire nation. On the 25th, Chairman Kim Jong Un sent out an apology. Some in South Korea say this is unusual. What do you make of it? Lee: It is not unusual. It is just acknowledging that they handled it wrong. I accepted Kim’s statement partly because I am certain that my brother’s body is in North Korea and I want the North Korean regime to return his body. I am telling Chairman Kim to return my brother’s body to my family as soon as possible. Lee Rae-jin, the older brother of a South Korean fisheries official shot dead by the North Korean military, and lawmakers get into the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, with a document to appeal for a U.N. investigation on his brother’s death, in Seoul, South Korea, October 6, 2020. Reuters RFA: You asked the United Nations to probe the case and also visited the UN Human Rights Office in Seoul. What role do you expect the UN and the international community to play? Lee: I requested that the United Nations carry out a thorough and sincere investigation and a transparent disclosure of information. The United Nations has the role of a watchdog. Though it has limitations as to what it can do legally, the UN is, in a way, more effective and handles things faster than the South Korean government. They consider this issue a serious matter. First, I was trying to shed light on the North Korean regime’s outrageous actions that led to this atrocity. Now I am pressing the South Korean government and military to disclose all the relevant information. RFA: In other interviews, members of your family said they wanted to prevent similar incidents from happening by raising awareness about the North Korean regime’s brutality. Lee: The North Korean regime is atrocious because it dragged an unarmed civilian, a government official who was half-dead, by a rope for two hours and killed him in the end. They shot at my brother who was already nearly dead. This is something I cannot wrap my head around… This is a tragedy that should never be repeated. So, it is absolutely necessary to prevent something like this from happening through international cooperation in line with the global standards. RFA: On October 15th, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, released a report that he will submit to the 75th UN General Assembly. The report says killing a civilian is against international human rights law and the North Korean regime should hold those responsible to account and compensate the bereaved family. Lee: I sent the Special Rapporteur a report specifying possibilities of death by shooting as well as death by drowning and cardiac arrest. I said both possibilities should be investigated and requested holding people accountable, pushing for a joint investigation and prevention of similar incidents. I also sent a report specifying details of the case. I think the Special Rapporteur read all that and moved quickly. You are not supposed to kill a civilian even during wartime, but the North Korean regime killed my brother even though they knew who he was. South Korea is not free of responsibility because it was monitoring North Korea all along. So, I am asking the UN to look into this. I am asking why the North killed my brother and why the South did not protect him. Shouldn’t there be answers to these questions? I want to know the answers. RFA: A total of 33 North Korean human rights organizations jointly sent a letter to the UN and the European Union, explaining about the case and gravity of the North Korean human rights situation. It seems like this incident is now regarded as falling under North Korean human rights issues. Lee: I am planning to work with many organizations including with the family of Otto Warmbier, [a U.S. citizen who in 2017 died shortly after his release for health reasons from a North Korean prison camp,] and their foundation. My brother was a government official in charge of maritime issues. Responding to this maritime incident, I also want to establish an organization to make appeals to the government to raise awareness in the international community. I believe through these efforts inter-Korean relations and the North Korean human rights situation will get better. Now smartphones are commonly used in North Korea, meaning there is more ability to receive information, and the economic situation has also improved compared to the past. But the regime’s order to kill an unarmed civilian… If that aspect of the society does not change and if we do not persuade them to change and allow them to be indifferent, North Korea might come under a greater pressure. If North Korea gets completely isolated from international society, the human rights situation there will only become more tragic. RFA: I suspect you and your family have things to say to the North Korean regime. Lee: I want to ask why they killed my brother under the pretext of the coronavirus, even though he identified himself. They should have sent him, a government official, back to his country for the sake of improving inter-Korean relations. If they are human beings, they should have at least rescued the person who was drifting at sea for 30 hours, help him get warm, and give him food and water. I strongly protest North Korea for not doing so. Also, if they have my brother’s body or his remains, I hope they will give them back for humanitarian reasons. RFA: Four weeks have passed after your brother went missing. What is your family’s wish right now? Lee: I hope we could recover my brother’ remains so that we can hold a funeral for him. How could we have expected this to happen? I still can’t believe it happened. My cellphone still has a record of calls between my brother and me. I can’t bring myself to erase this record. I love my brother that much. Reported by Hyunju Lee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jeongun Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong

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North Korea’s Kim Jong Un Apologizes For Shooting Death of South Korean Official at Sea

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un issued a rare apology Friday for the shooting death of a South Korean official found adrift in waters near the countries’ disputed border this week, South Korea’s security advisor told reporters. Kim’s apology for the shooting on Tuesday came in a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, one day after Seoul gave an account of the incident that said North Korean soldiers had shot and killed the fisheries official, doused him with gasoline, and burned his corpse. “Chairman Kim Jong Un said to convey that he feels deeply sorry for giving President Moon Jae-in and the people of South Korea a huge sense of disappointment due to the unintended, unfortunate incident in our waters, especially when the South Korean people are struggling under the threat of the coronavirus," presidential advisor Suh Hoon quoted the letter as saying. Suh confirmed that the letter was in response to demands for an explanation for what happened. He said the letter also promised that such incidents would not recur in the future. Following initial news reports about the incident, Moon had called the killing “unpardonable.” [embedded content] The shooting victim was an official of South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. He had gone missing while at sea on Monday and was spotted in the water north of the maritime border with a life jacket and a floatation device. According to the North Korean version of events, the man did not respond to orders to identify himself. “Our soldiers fired about 10 shots at the illegal intruder, based on a decision made by our ship’s captain and according to operational guidelines of maritime security,” according to the North’s message, presented by Suh. When they went to examine his floatation device, they found copious amounts of blood, but no body, the message said. “Our military concluded that the illegal intruder was shot and killed, and burned his floatable device according to our epidemiological regulations,” the North’s explanation read. The South Korean government earlier said the man was facing financial distress and was trying to defect to the North, but his family on Friday denied that this had been his intention. U.S. sees ‘helpful step’ The shooting came only one day after Moon had extended an olive branch to North Korea—calling for a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, replacing the 57-year-old armistice with a peace treaty, a demand of Pyongyang in talks with the South. The two leaders had also exchanged letters earlier this month. A spokesperson from the U.S. Department of State told RFA it supported South Korea’s condemnation of the incident and joined Seoul in calling on Pyongyang to provide a full explanation but acknowledged said that Kim’s apology was a “helpful step.” Analysts parsing Kim Jong Un’s motives for responding swiftly to an incident that was stoking anger in South Korea said they saw a mix of crisis management and strategic calculations. Pyongyang faces the double squeeze of U.N. and U.S. sanctions aimed at halting cash for North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and the closure of the border and shutdown of all trade with China. “The direct and quick apology coming from Kim Jong-un himself … shows that North Korea doesn't want to fully sever inter-Korean links,” said Ramon Pacheco Pardo of King’s College London and Universiteit Brussel. “It also fits with the assessment that North Korea wants a deal involving sanctions relief, in which case inter-Korean cooperation would be crucial for Pyongyang,” he said. “It is noteworthy that North Korea issued an apology rather than regrets, as it has done in the past. This seems to me clear proof that Pyongyang genuinely wants to resume inter-Korean relations when possible, and that it doesn't want this horrible incident to derail bilateral links,” he said. Harry Kazianis, the director of Korean Studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest, told RFA the apology was a calculated move. “North Korea, and especially Kim Jong-un, never make any move unless it has been carefully thought out, all of the costs and benefits weighed and all reactions by the other side considered. In the case of this apology, while I am happy to see what seems like a sincere expression of regret and apology, at the same time, it is not shocking if one considers the situation North Korea is in at the moment,” he said. “I think this is a sincere apology, but clearly done with a strategic intent,” he added. Don’t buy the spin David Maxwell of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said Seoul and Washington “should not be duped by this apology.” “Kim is conducting his usual political warfare with Juche characteristics,” he told RFA, referring to the North’s guiding ideology. “I fear this unusual apology will be misinterpreted as Kim is changing his ways and will actually be used as justification for advancing engagement with the North because Kim has apologized and expressed sincere regret,” said Maxwell. “But he will spin--and is spinning--this incident in a way to set up getting such concessions,” he said. As word of the incident reached North Korean trade officials in China, they told RFA there was a shared sense of shock at the killing. “Trade officials in China were all shocked by the terrible atrocity committed by North Korean authorities,” said a trade official stationed in Dandong, China, just across the Yalu River from North Korea told RFA. ““North Korean trade officials here in China are criticizing the authorities for killing a South Korean, who comes from the same ethnic roots. They wonder how they could take the man’s life as if he were a fly,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons. Another North Korean trade official stationed in Dalian said his colleagues there were equally shocked by the incident. “Since February, when the coronavirus crisis began, the supreme leadership has punished numerous senior officials in various areas, including border areas, for failing to properly manage the coronavirus quarantine, and now they committed a brutal act of killing an innocent South Korean civilian,” the second source said. “What’s scarier than the coronavirus is the behavior of the supreme leadership, which thinks nothing of killing people.” The shooting incident was the first time North Korea has killed a South Korean citizen since a 2008 incident in which an elderly Southern tourist at the inter-Korean Mount Kumgang tourist region was shot and killed for straying into a military area. North Korea did not apologize for that killing. Following that incident, Seoul suspended tours to the resort, which had been an important source of revenue for the North Korean government. Reported by Kyung Ha Rhee, Soyoung Kim and Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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