More evidence of mishandling in death of Lee Dae-jun

More evidence of mishandling in death of Lee Dae-jun

The latest findings by state audit and inspection agency signal an escalation in the various investigations into a possible mishandling by the former administration’s officials in the case of Lee Dae-jun, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries official killed by North Korean soldiers two years ago.

The Board of Audit and Inspection of Korea asked prosecutors to investigate top national security and defense officials from the preceding administration after concluding that they tried to distort and cover up the facts in Lee’s killing.

Among those being sought in the investigation are Suh Hoon, former director of Cheong Wa Dae’s Office of National Security; Park Jie-won, former director of the National Intelligence Service; and Seo Wook, former minister of National Defense, as well as Ministry of Unification officials and Coast Guard officers.

In a report Friday, the BAI said the early internal documents revealed the military and intelligence authorities did not characterize Lee as a North Korea defector, in contrast with announcements made by South Korean authorities at the time.

According to the BAI, the first report produced by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, submitted to the Ministry of National Defense on Sept. 21, 2020, stated that it was unlikely Lee was defecting to North Korea.

In a written brief to Moon on Sept. 22, Cheong Wa Dae’s Office of National Security described Lee as a missing person, saying that he is believed to have fallen off the patrol vessel. On the same day the National Intelligence Service said it would wait before making a determination.

The next day on Sept. 23 the Office of National Security through text messages instructed Coast Guard officers to tell reporters about some damaging stories about Lee’s personal life such as his financial situation. The Office also asked the Defense Ministry to work on the possibility Lee may have attempted to defect to North Korea.

In the report the BAI pointed out no steps were taken in accordance with the protocols after it was confirmed Lee drifted into North Korean waters.

The BAI said Lee died in North Korean custody while early actions by all of the authorities involved — including Cheong Wa Dae, the intelligence service and the military — failed.

More specifically, the BAI said Cheong Wa Dae’s high-level national security officials left work at around 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 22 — just hours before Lee was killed — despite being aware that Lee was being held captive by North Korean soldiers.

By that time, around 38 hours had passed from the time Lee was presumed to have gone missing, the BAI said. Earlier that year North Korea had also made it clear that anyone crossing its borders would be shot dead to block the spread of COVID-19.

The BAI said the Defense Ministry decided not to get involved in an internal meeting on Sept. 22, saying the situation fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Unification.

Also on Sept. 22 the Unification Ministry stopped pursuing the situation after getting a response from the National Intelligence Service which said no further information was available.

The Board said there was evidence that suggested Lee might have come into contact with another vessel before he was seized by North Korean soldiers — which is also something that was not disclosed in announcements at the time. Lee was wearing a life jacket that appeared to belong to a Chinese fishing boat when he was found by North Korean soldiers.

Kwon Young-mi, Lee’s wife, thanked the BAI for the revelations in an open letter Monday.

“It’s important to find out what happened to my husband because to this day there are government workers and Coast Guard, naval authorities who continue to work near the Northern Limit Line, like my husband did,” she said.

The opposition Democratic Party of Korea has called the ongoing inspections and investigations surrounding Lee’s killing “political vengeance.”

In a press conference held outside the presidential office in Yongsan, central Seoul, on Monday, the party’s leadership said President Yoon Suk-yeol is “blinded by spite to avenge” his predecessor.

The ruling People Power Party called on Moon, who has rejected the state inspector request for an interview, to comply with the investigations. His former Cheong Wa Dae staffer, Rep. Youn Kun-young, said in radio interviews that the ex-president called the BAI move “insolent.”

By Kim Arin ([email protected])

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