19.07.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

“President Moon, Where Were You for Six Hours?”


This author has previously written about the clouds gathering over the Moon Jae-in administration as they try to investigate the incident in the Yellow Sea.

Recall that on June 16, the Coast Guard Service and the South Korean Ministry of Defense officially announced that there were actually no grounds for the previously advertised version of events that “the victim was killed while trying to escape to North Korea due to debts and a number of other circumstances,” and made an official apology.  After that, the “grieving family” turned to the prosecutor’s office demanding an investigation into three former Moon administration officials, who they accuse of interfering with the work of other civil servants, abusing their powers, and falsifying official documents.  At the same time, the relatives insist that the prosecutor’s office, and not the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO), conduct the case because its current head was appointed by the previous administration.

The fact is that the family demanded access to the data, at least the wiretapping of North Korean messages, on whose basis it was allegedly concluded that the deceased wanted to escape to the DPRK. On June 23, however, the archives of the presidential administration rejected the request to release confidential records. After this decision, the family said it was considering filing a complaint against ex-President Moon: if he designated the relevant documents as confidential, then the case is not clean and “if it becomes certain that the former president was involved in the decision-making, he will be next.”

This situation is continuing to develop, and new accusations are being added to old allegations. While neither the Democrats nor Conservatives back away from the theory that the missing official and the man shot by North Koreans are the same person, the Conservatives, who formed their own investigative team, have already found out a lot of interesting things after allegedly gaining access to information from the documents the Joint Chiefs of Staff submitted to the Moon Jae-in administration. According to them, the likelihood that the deceased tried to escape to the North was assessed as insignificant, but the Moon administration made it the main point after holding a working meeting at the ministerial level.  Moreover, in the seven hours of communication between the military, the passage about the escape to the North was heard only once – two hours after the North Korean military announced the “capture” of Lee.

In other words, the Conservatives accuse the Moon administration of fabricating data and vilifying an innocent person for political purposes.

Then, MP Ha Tae-kyung, head of the commission of inquiry and former head of the parliamentary intelligence committee, pointed out that “the Moon administration had six hours to do something after being informed that an official had been detained by North Korea. It will be important to find out if it could have used that time to save his life.” The fact that Lee was “captured alive by the North Koreans” became known to the South Korean military around 3:30 p.m., and Moon Jae-in did not issue any orders to rescue the victim from the time he was confirmed to be still alive around 3:30 p.m. on September 22 until 10 p.m., when he was shot dead 6 hours later.

Democrats and former members of the presidential administration are trying to counter, arguing that the previous authorities didn’t interfere in the investigation, but only received reports. Besides that,  the Democratic Party has decided to launch its own investigation in response to so-called “political misrepresentations.” According to the Democrats, the Conservatives “are overly politicizing the case, permitting the distortion of the circumstances” under which it happened.

Meanwhile, Lee Dae-joon’s family, incited by the Conservatives, continues to “sound the drum,” turning to the UN Office for Human Rights and human rights politicians abroad for help.

On June 22, President Yoon apologized to the Lee family in a special letter addressed to the son of the deceased. On June 24, Coast Guard officials, including General Commissioner Jeong Bong-Hun, intended to resign en masse, but the resignation was rejected.

On June 27, the Lee family warned that they would file a criminal case against former President Moon Jae-in if the Democratic Party didn’t decide to release the tapes by July 4 or complete a parliamentary vote on the matter by July 13. This was apparently due to the media reporting on the same day that information about Lee had been given to the president at around 6:30 p.m., three hours before his death. Per the Conservative paper “Chosun Ilbo,” this means that Moon had enough time to take steps to save him. But the president didn’t do anything. Moon explained that he was unable to properly deal with the situation because of broken communication lines between South and North Korea. But that turned out not to be the case. According to the Ministry of Defense, inter-Korean military communications were available at the time, operated by the so-called Joint Command, and the Moon administration sent a notice to North Korea via this telephone line.

On June 29, Lee Rae-jin revealed on Facebook that the Democratic Party had offered the family financial compensation if they admitted that his brother tried to flee to the North, but he refused.

On July 1, the political parties exchanged counter accusations. “People Power” staged a simulation of the incident and claimed that Pyongyang would not have shot the official and burned his body if the government had sent patrol boats into nearby waters to broadcast a warning over loudspeakers. As “People Power” leader Kwon Seong-dong state during the meeting, Lee was killed twice: once by northerners and once by Moon’s government.

The Democratic Party said that President Yoon’s office was involved in overturning the results of the investigation, as the Coast Guard and the Defense Ministry did not provide any new evidence and came to opposite conclusions based on the same facts.

What can be said here? Perhaps the audience remembers how, after the tragedy of the “Sewol” ferry, the opposition terrorized the Blue House with cries of “Where was the president for seven hours while our children were drowning?”. Now “the boomerang has flown back” and the Conservatives are already asking the former president a similar question, citing an appeal to Moon by the son of the deceased: “What did the country do when my father was killed?”

The author remembers well that the question addressed to Park Geun-hye was actually rhetorical. The president was ill, then she received incorrect information that everyone was saved, and when the truth became clear, she began to act. It’s most likely that there was no question of deliberately ignoring the problem either, but when the dragon slayer becomes a dragon with a large number of heads, it’s not surprising that the boomerang turns out to be fatal.

But trouble comes in pairs, and after one high-profile story, the Conservatives took up another, also associated with similar issues. The author is referring to the November 2019) incident when South Korea extradited two fishermen to the North who tried to defect to the South after killing 16 of their comrades.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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