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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
The South Korean government on Friday defended the legality of its decision this week to repatriate two North Korean sailors accused of murdering their crewmates, with the Ministry of Unification (MOU) insisting that their intent to defect was not sincere.
Seoul expelled the two escapees on Thursday afternoon via the inter-Korean border at Panmunjom, with the men — both in their twenties — having been discovered to have fled the North after murdering 16 of their crewmates on a squid fishing boat.
The MOU deputy spokesperson on Friday defended the move, despite the fact that the two men had “clearly expressed their intention to defect during the investigation process.”
“We judged that it is reasonable to believe that they aimed to escape after committing a crime rather than having the pure intention to defect,” deputy spokesperson Kim Eun-han said during a regular briefing.
Seoul, he said, came to that conclusion after “putting the circumstances together and considering the consistency in the various statements” given by the two men during a joint investigation by the military and intelligence services.
The two North Koreans, he said, had repeatedly ignored warning shots and orders from the South Korean navy to stop and “continued to flee” for two days — evasion that purportedly disproved the sincerity of their later claims to have wanted to defect.
The two men’s vessel was first spotted by a P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft on October 31, though they were only apprehended on November 2.
The two escapees later stated that they had originally planned to escape via North Korea’s Jagang province after committing the crime, the MOU deputy spokesperson added, saying that they had agreed to return to “motherland” even if they might die.
“Based on our judgment, we did not consider that they had the sincere intention to defect,” Kim told assembled media, adding that the “criminal facts… were very clear” taking into account the arrest and investigation processes and that their statements were consistent.
“I would like to emphasize, once again, that the criminal charges of the two North Koreans, who were deported, were very clear and unquestionable.”
The MOU deputy spokesperson also stressed that the government had not solely relied on the statements of the two fugitives in the process of making the decision to repatriate them.
“My understanding is that a relevant agency also provided information, but it is not appropriate for me to disclose that in detail,” he said.
During the joint investigation, the two men were reported to have stated that they had thrown the weapon used in the murder — a blunt object — into the sea after killing their crew mates.
South Korean investigation authorities also found bloodstains in the vessel, he said, which was handed over to North Korean authorities between 1408 and 1451 KST on Friday.
LEGALITY OF DEPORTATION
Thursday’s controversial repatriation has sparked extensive debate about the legality of the move and widespread concern from human rights organizations.
Article 3 of the ROK Constitution stipulates that its territory “shall consist of the Korean peninsula and its adjacent islands” and, as a result, all North Koreans can be also be considered citizens of the South.
Speaking at the regular briefing Friday, Kim said that all North Koreans escapees are “potential citizens, in accordance with the constitution.”
“But in order to practically apply jurisdiction over them, procedure and conditions to accept them as our citizens, known as defection, is required.”
The South Korean government concluded, he said, that the two men were not eligible for protection in accordance with related manuals and the North Korean Refugees Protection and Settlement Support Act, rendering them ineligible for defection.
Article 9 Criteria for Protection Decision of the North Korean Refugees Protection and Settlement Support Act stipulates that specific persons “may not be designated as persons eligible for protection.”
According to the law, the government is able to reject protection and support for “offenders of nonpolitical and serious crimes, such as murder.”
In this context, Kim said it is “very inappropriate” to argue that this week’s case could set a legal precedent for defectors residing in South Korea to be sent home.
“I do not believe it is the right view,” Kim said, when asked whether it was “right to immediately expel defectors suspected of crime.”
“North Korean defectors are obviously our citizens who have already passed certain requirements and procedures under the North Korean refugees’ act, and therefore they are a completely different matter from this case,” he continued.
“We believe that concerns about the forced repatriation of North Korean defectors raised by some are highly inappropriate and irresponsible claims, which amplify the anxiety and fear of 30,000 North Korean defectors.”
The MOU deputy spokesperson on also Friday reiterated that the South Korean government had applied the relevant regulations and laws — including the Immigration Act — in the process of deportation.
Thursday saw MOU spokesperson Lee Sang-min say that the government decided to deport the two men as they “can be seen as a possible threat to the lives and safety of our citizens if integrated into our society.”
“They cannot be recognized as refugees under international law as they have committed a heinous crime.”
The deportation is highly unusual, and appears to be the first time that the South Korean government has expelled North Korean citizens who have crossed the inter-Korean border, but expressed their desire to defect, since the division of the peninsula.
“This case is very exceptional, and therefore, there is a lack of clear legal ground that can be applied to it,” Kim said Friday, describing the case as “unprecedented” and as having a “huge impact.”
The unification ministry has admitted to the lack of institutional and legal precedent for the case, pledging to look into the current system and develop solutions to improve it.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News