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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Bill preventing forced repatriation of defectors proposed

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One of the two North Koreans is being pulled by North Korean border officials at Panmunjom after being over by South Korean special police in November 2019. The two North Koreans were sent back to North Korea just five days after they were retrieved by the South Korean Navy near Samcheok, Gangwon. Moon Jae-in's government then claimed that the two North Korean men were wanted by North Korean authorities for killing 16 people. [MINISTRY OF UNIFICATION]
One of the two North Koreans is being pulled by North Korean border officials at Panmunjom after being over by South Korean special police in November 2019. The two North Koreans were sent back to North Korea just five days after they were retrieved by the South Korean Navy near Samcheok, Gangwon. Moon Jae-in’s government then claimed that the two North Korean men were wanted by North Korean authorities for killing 16 people. [MINISTRY OF UNIFICATION]

The Yoon Suk Yeol administration proposed a legislative reform that would prevent the forced repatriation of North Korean defectors that is currently under review by the National Assembly.

The reform includes a measure to require the South Korean government to ask if a North Korean defector wants protection, according to the JoongAng Ilbo.

It would also allow the unification minister to request the investigative authorities to probe any criminal allegation that may have been made against a North Korean defector if the supplement passes.

The Cabinet approved in its April 18 meeting the supplement to the North Korean Refugees Protection and Settlement Support Act, which the Unification Ministry proposed. It was then delivered to the National Assembly on April 20.

The move to revise the law comes after the previous Moon Jae-in government forcibly repatriated two North Koreans back to Pyongyang on suspicion of killing 16 crewmembers on a fishing boat in 2019.

The Moon government then said the North Korean authorities wanted the pair for non-political crimes.

The Moon government didn’t disclose the repatriation until a text message from a Joint Security Area officer sent to a Blue House official reporting the deportation appeared in a reporter’s photo during a National Assembly Budget and Accounts Committee hearing on Nov. 7, 2019.

The pair, whom the South Korean Navy retrieved around Samcheok, Gangwon, were sent back to North just five days later. Many allege their deportation was rushed.

Videos later released showed the two men being forced to cross the border to North Korea while surrounded by South Korean special police at the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom, with one resisting.

This contradicted the Blue House’s earlier statement that they didn’t express any will to defect.

The prosecutors’ office investigating the case said the two North Koreans weren’t given a fair trial as stipulated by the South Korean constitution, which also recognizes North Koreans as South Korean citizens.

The majority Democratic Party, however, is fighting the Unification Ministry’s proposed reform, especially over the clause allowing the unification minister to request an investigation into criminal allegations defectors face.

DP lawmaker Hwang Hee raised the issue of the proposed reform’s limiting investigation only to crimes potentially committed in Noth Korea in a May 9 meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee of the National Assembly.

He said it is impossible to investigate a case that happened in North Korea without the help of the North Korean authorities.

However, at the meeting, Unification Minister Kwon Young-se told lawmakers there are cases where defectors had been found guilty in a court of a crime committed in North Korea or another third country.

“It could be a larger problem if we send back [the defectors] to a place where one cannot guarantee the credibility of a justice system,” Kwon said.

It has been reported that the two forcibly repatriated North Koreans were executed.

“While there are various limitations, it is still better to [try North Korean defectors] within our own legal system,” Kwon told lawmakers.

BY CHUNG YEONG-GYO, LEE HO-JEONG [lee.hojeong@joongang.co.kr]