Public execution in Hoeryong, North Korea, 2005
Just one week remains in leftist President Roh Moo Hyun’s disgraceful term of office, yet his Sunshine Policy is still killing North Koreans. That policy was generous to the man who lives in this palace, but for the rest of North Korea’s people, it has always meant “die in place” and “you are not welcome.” And while there’s much we still don’t know about this incident, I didn’t believe the official story from the beginning, and the more I read, the less I believe:
A group of 22 North Koreans who had been returned home after their boats drifted into South Korean waters were all immediately executed by North Korean authorities, a source here said Sunday.
Two fishing boats carrying the North Koreans — 14 women and eight men including three teenagers — drifted into the western waters off South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island on Feb. 8 and were sent back home after South Korean interrogators found they had no intention of defecting, the National Intelligence Service said in a press release on Saturday. [Yonhap]
Upon finding the North Koreans adrift in South Korean waters, the South Koreans took them to Incheon and interrogated them. Of the 22 “crew members,” 14 were women and three were teenagers between 15 and 17. According to the Chosun Ilbo (via the IHT), the seas were too calm to blow not just one, but two boats out to the open ocean and across the world’s most contested international maritime boundary. Tides in the area are notoriously high, but if the 22 were collecting clams, a rising tide should have pushed them north, not south.
South Korean intelligence claims that these people “went to sea to collect clams and oysters without authorization” and drifted off course. It claims that both boats were blown off course, yet stayed together. It claims that when questioned, the 22 said they didn’t want to defect. Of course, it didn’t bother to mention any of this until the Chosun Ilbo broke the story.
Those claims are absolutely implausible. But given what we know about South Korea’s policy of discouraging mass defections, it is plausible that the South Korean authorities (a) lied about the intentions of these people, who in fact did want to defect, or (b) intimidated or forced them into returning to the North.
A source well-versed in North Korea told Yonhap News Agency, however, that the drifters were all executed immediately after returning home early last week. The provincial branch of North Korea’s National Security Agency shot and killed them secretly, the source said. Of the group, 13 were extended family members and nine others were their neighbors, according to the South Korean intelligence agency.
“A rumor spread in South Hwanghae Province that (the security agency) secretly executed the 22 people immediately after they were returned,” the source said. “People in the province are shocked by the fact that all of the 22 people were shot and killed without exception, such being sent to a prison camp,” the source said.
South Korean intelligence officials, contacted by Yonhap News Agency, said they were not aware of the rumored execution and would try to verify it.
The obvious caveats apply. Kim Jong Il doesn’t exactly make it easy to confirm reports of mass executions. The report is consistent, however, with other recent reports that the North has taken a much harder line against defections in the last year.
We’re about to find what President-Elect Lee Myung Bak is made of. If his surrogates are sincere that Lee will adopt a more humane refugee policy, he can start by sending a strong message to his own government’s civil servants. Lee should order a thorough investigation of this incident. If the inquiry finds that refugees were indeed sent back to their deaths, this warrants criminal prosecution.
Another official, requesting anonymity, said, “It was beyond imagination to repatriate a North Korean defector at a time when the new government comes in with its North Korea policy set on the human rights condition in the country.”
South Korea is set to revise its decade-long sunshine policy toward North Korea as the incoming conservative government of Lee Myung-bak plans to take a tougher stance on North Korea with calls to improve its human rights condition and dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
If there was any mercy for the Kangnyeong 22, it was that at least their deaths were swift. Knowing what we do of life, such as it is, in North Korea’s concentration camps, there’s little question that a firing squad is a better fate.