South Koreans want answers to murdered fishery official

Lee Dae-jin, South Korean oceans and fisheries official who died in mysterious circumstances in September 2020 during the liberal Moon Jae-in administration, continues to make headlines in South Korea today. North Korean soldiers shot him and burned his body, which was found floating in the West Sea near the North Korean borders.

Shortly after discovering the body, the Korean Coast Guard announced Lee, then-47-year-old, was killed during his attempt to defect to North Korea to avoid paying gambling debt. This was strongly denied by Lee’s family, who filed criminal complaints against the security officials, accusing them of framing Lee to placate North Korea. 

In June, two months after Yoon Suk-yeol from the conservative party became president, the Korean Coast Guard and the Ministry of National Defense made an official apology to the deceased’s family, stating they found no evidence of Lee’s intention to defect.

Following the apology, the government started an investigation of Lee’s death. On October 13, the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) requested the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate 20 officials, including Seo Wook, former defense minister, and Kim Hong-hee, former head of the Korean Coast Guard. BAI added Lee was found wearing a life jacket imprinted with Chinese letters. 

On October 22, the Prosecutor’s Office issued arrest warrants for Seo and Kim. Seo was charged with abuse of power for ordering the removal of surveillance information obtained near the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea, where Lee was killed. Kim was accused of manipulating evidence and defaming Lee that he tried to flee due to his gambling debts. 

Seo and Kim denied all charges. During the investigation, Seo admitted he ordered to stop the “spread of confidential information,” but not to “delete” it. The investigation is also expected to extend to Suh Hoon, former National Security Adviser, and Park Jie-won, ex-head of the National Intelligence Service. 

They both denied on October 27 in a press conference that there was an order to security officials to “delete” all information related to Lee’s death. Their cases are expected to be turned over to the court for trial later this week.

The National Police Agency is also investigating former president Moon for his involvement. In September, the BAI twice requested Moon to answer some questions but he refused both times. 

On October 7, Lee’s family filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office against Moon for violating the Board of Audit and Inspection Act, which states that a person who does not comply with the board’s request without a fair reason may be subject to up to one year in prison or 10 million won ($US7,200) fine. Since violations of the Act are under the police’s jurisdiction, not the prosecutor’s, the case will be reviewed and investigated by the police moving forward.

In addition to the legal case, Lee’s family also has questions about why Lee died and how he ended up wearing a life jacket with Chinese letters. On October 26, the family requested the defense ministry to reveal the number and types of Chinese-flagged vessels near where Lee was found, and what was written on the jacket.

Kim Gi-yoon, legal representative of Lee’s family, said based on circumstantial evidence, it appeared Lee fell off the fishery inspection ship he was on, was picked up by a Chinese ship, where he put on a life jacket with Chinese characters, then fell back into the water again. He wanted the Korean Navy to release information about the Chinese ship so that Lee’s family can meet with the captain and crew to understand the situation.

On October 31, Rep. Yoon Kun-young of the Democratic Party and Rep. Yoo Sang-beom of the People Power Party told reporters the authority could not confirm whether the Chinese characters were the simplified form used in China, and if it was a Chinese ship or a North Korean ship that first found Lee.

Photo credit: iStock/ Matrix Reloaded. South Korean soldiers at checkpoint of Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), March 2013.

Sunny Um

Sunny Um

Sunny, our South Korea correspondent working out of Seoul, is a journalist with a passion for community journalism and an interest in economics and politics.

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