The 17-year-old son of a South Korean Fisheries Ministry official that went missing last month — who Seoul accused North Korea of killing at sea — wrote a letter to leftist President Moon Jae-in published Tuesday condemning him for not doing enough to protect his father.
The man’s identity has remained anonymous, except for the detail that he worked for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries’ West Sea Fisheries Management Service and was 47 years old. The victim’s brother has identified himself publicly as Lee Rae-jin. The job required many hours at sea and close to the North Korean border, but South Korean officials have not yet offered a clear explanation for how the man went missing or reportedly ended up in North Korean waters.
The South Korean Defense Ministry accused North Korean soldiers of shooting the official to death while he was swimming in the water, then burning his body immediately after his death. No evidence the man was armed or posed any threat to the soldiers exists, nor does any concrete explanation for why he was in the water. South Korean news outlets have speculated he was trying to defect to the North, but no clear motivation for doing so has surfaced.
“North Korea found the man in its waters and committed an act of brutality by shooting at him and burning his body, according to our military’s thorough analysis of diverse intelligence,” South Korea’s Defense Ministry said in a press release at the time, adding that the man “is presumed to have jumped into the sea Monday in a suspected attempt to defect to the North.”
South Korean news outlets have accused the South Korean military of watching the official’s death from its side of the maritime border but failing to act to protect the man for fear of violating North Korea’s sovereignty and triggering more violence.
The North Korean communist regime denied that it burned the man’s body. Instead, Pyongyang insists that it did shoot the man because he was illegally crossing the border, but never found his body, and burned his bloody clothes as Chinese coronavirus pandemic protocols demand. America’s top military official in Korea confirmed last month that Pyongyang has issued “shoot-to-kill” orders on its borders to prevent outsiders from bringing the Chinese coronavirus into the country. North Korea claims it has documented zero coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, a number most global medical experts question.
The official’s son notes in his letter, published in the pages of conservative South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, that the official also had an eight-year-old daughter, his sister. He asks Moon, “what was the government doing while my father was brutally killed?”
“If your children or grandchildren were in my place, would you still behave as you do now?” the son asked. “I wonder what attempts the government made while my father was slaughtered and why he couldn’t be rescued.”
The unnamed son insisted the family had no reason to believe his father was planning an escape to North Korea and expressed disgust at the speculation regarding that theory, fueled largely by a Coast Guard report.
“When he went missing suddenly, stories that have not been proven appear as hot topics in the media every day. How can someone drag the breadwinner of a family through the mud?” the son wrote, adding that the official “called us on the phone as usual, and even made a video call to my sister saying that he would come home in a few days” before the news of his death surfaced.
The son also speculated that his father never jumped into the water, arguing that the man could not swim and was too small to successfully navigate the rough Korean waters. He also suggested the fact that North Korean officials knew his identity and other basic details imply they captured and interrogated him before potentially tossing him in the water and killing him.
“I want to ask if it really makes sense for a skinny man who weighs only 68 kg at a height of 180 cm to swim deliberately against the tide,” he wrote.
“Please rehabilitate my dishonored father so that my mother, younger sister and I can have normal lives,” the teen concluded in a plea to Moon.
Moon Jae-in’s foreign policy has been defined by his insistence that kindness and diplomacy towards the communist North, even as the Korean War approaches 71 years of age, would lead to breakthroughs in the pursuit of peace. Hopes placed on Moon’s policies after several in-person meetings with dictator Kim Jong-un were violently dashed this summer after the Kim regime ordered the bombing of a joint liaison office on its side of the border used for daily check-ins with the South.
Following its accusations against the North, Seoul revealed that dictator Kim Jong-un had allegedly issued an apology for the incident, claiming he said he was “immensely sorry.” The United Nations later disputed the South Korean government’s claims.
“Kim Jong Un expressed regret for the incident, which is an important gesture, but it wasn’t an apology because actually he also declared that the guards didn’t infringe instructions and regulations when shooting the individual,” U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korea Tomás Ojea Quintana told Voice of America in late September.
Moon publicly responded to the victim’s son’s letter on Tuesday, saying, “my heart is also aching.”
“I understand the pain of a son who lost his father,” Moon said in a statement relayed by a presidential spokesperson, adding, however, that he would not comment on the details of the case before the completion of the Coast Guard’s more thorough investigation following preliminary findings.
The spokesman also promised that Moon would respond to the boy in a private letter.
In tandem with the publication of the letter, the boy’s uncle, Lee Rae-jin, held a press conference Tuesday in front of the United Nations Human Rights Office in South Korea’s capital urging international intervention to ensure the fairness and accuracy of any South Korean government investigation into the incident.
“We hope this incident serves as a foundation in preventing similar incidents in the future,” Lee said. The brother also demanded access to audio the South Korean military reported possesses of a conversation the fisheries official had with North Korean troops before his death to confirm the veracity of any investigative conclusions.
Speaking to the South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, Lee insisted the man’s family had no reason to believe he wanted to move to North Korea.
“My younger brother was just an ordinary public servant with a strong sense of duty,” He said. “My nephew could not go to school after media reported the government conclusion that he was defecting to the North. My heart broke when I read my nephew’s letter.”
A family attorney, Kim Ki-yun, reportedly explained that “the data will verify if he really expressed his desire to defect and if he expressed his real intention. The information will also reveal if the ministry worked properly to save his life, and allow the bereaved family to see the last moment of their loved one.”