SEOUL – South Korea’s former defense minister and coast guard chief were arrested Saturday over their alleged involvement in covering up facts and distorting the circumstances surrounding North Korea’s killing of a South Korean fisheries official in 2020 near the rivals’ tense sea border.
The arrests came as the government of conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol expands investigations into the 2020 killing and another border incident the year before that prompted criticism that Seoul’s previous liberal administration improperly appeased the North to improve ties.
The Seoul Central District Court said it granted prosecutors’ requests for arrest warrants on former Defense Minister Suh Wook and former Coast Guard Commissioner General Kim Hong-hee because it saw them as threats to destroy evidence or flee.
The opposition liberal Democratic Party, which claims the investigations are being driven by Yoon’s political vendetta against his predecessor Moon Jae-in, accused prosecutors of “manipulating the truth” to support Yoon’s “political crackdown.”
The party also criticized the separate arrest on Saturday of Kim Yong, a close confidante of current party leader Lee Jae-myung, over suspicions that he raised illegal campaign funds to help finance Lee’s presidential bid before his loss to Yoon in the vote in March.
“Since it’s a court decision, we respect it. But warrants aren’t the final judgement. The final truth will be revealed during the court trials,” Democratic Party spokesperson Kim Eui-kyum said in a statement. He insisted that the investigations will eventually target Moon and Lee.
The Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office had been investigating Suh and Kim Hong-hee for suspected abuse of power and falsifying documents related to the 2020 case. It said Suh faces an additional allegation of destroying records.
Last week, South Korea’s Board of Audit and Inspection demanded that prosecutors investigate 20 people, including Suh and Kim, for allegedly covering up key facts related to the 2020 case.
The agency said its investigation into the Moon government’s handling of the killing revealed that officials made no meaningful attempt to rescue the 47-year-old fisheries official, Lee Dae-jun, after learning that he was drifting in waters near the Koreas’ disputed western sea boundary.
After confirming that Lee had been fatally shot by North Korean troops, officials publicly played up the possibility that he had tried to defect to North Korea, citing his gambling debts and family issues, while withholding evidence suggesting he had no such intention, the agency said.
According to the agency’s report, Suh, under the direction of Moon’s national security office, instructed an official to delete about 60 military intelligence reports related to the incident as the government delayed a public announcement of Lee’s death while debating how to explain it to the public. The agency also said the coast guard under Kim had manipulated the results of simulations of Lee’s drifting to buttress the claim that he tried to defect.
Suh and Kim didn’t answer reporters’ questions about the allegations earlier on Friday as they appeared at the court hours apart for reviews on the prosecution’s warrant requests. Lee Rae-jin, the brother of the late Lee, protested in front of the court calling for Suh and Kim’s arrests. He was held back by the court’s security staff when he tried to approach Suh as he arrived for the review.
In June, weeks after Yoon took office, the Defense Ministry and coast guard under the Yoon government reversed the Moon government’s description of the incident, saying there was no evidence that Lee had tried to defect.
In July, the National Intelligence Service filed charges against two of its former directors during Moon’s government over similar allegations, including abuse of power, destruction of public records and falsification of documents.
Yoon’s government is also investigating the 2019 forced repatriation of two North Korean fishermen despite their reported wish to resettle in South Korea.
Critics say Moon’s government never provided a clear explanation of why it sent back the two escapees back to the North to face possible execution. Kim Yeon-chul, Moon’s point person on North Korea, described the men as “atrocious criminals” who confessed to murder, and questioned the sincerity of their wish to defect.
Dozens of international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, issued a joint statement accusing Moon’s government of failing to provide due process and “protect anyone who would be at substantial risk of torture or other serious human rights violations after repatriation.”