SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s former national security director was arrested Saturday over a suspected cover-up surrounding North Korea’s 2020 killing of a South Korean fisheries official near the rivals’ maritime border.
Suh Hoon’s early arrest on Saturday came as President Yoon Suk Yeol’s conservative government was investigating his liberal predecessor’s handling of that murder and another border incident the same year, matters prompting criticism. Seoul desperately tried to appease the north to improve relations.
Former President Moon Jae-in, who served his only term on inter-Korean rapprochement before leaving office in May, has reacted angrily to the investigation into Suh’s actions. Moon issued a statement this week accusing Yoon’s government of making baseless accusations and politicizing sensitive security issues.
Seoul Central District Court Judge Kim Jeong-min granted the prosecutor’s request to arrest Suh because he feared he would attempt to destroy evidence, the court said in a statement. Suh did not answer questions from reporters about the allegations on Friday when he appeared in court for a review of the prosecution’s request for a warrant.
An earlier investigation by South Korea’s Board of Audit and Inspection concluded that Moon government officials had made no meaningful effort to rescue Lee Dae-jun after learning that the 47-year-old fisheries official was floating in waters near the western maritime border of Korea in September 2020.
After confirming that Lee had been fatally shot by North Korean forces, officials publicly played down the possibility that he had attempted to defect to North Korea, citing his gambling debts and family problems, while withholding evidence suggesting he was not was planning. said in an October report.
Suh also served as Moon’s chief of espionage before being appointed director of national security two months before the assassination. He is suspected of using a cabinet meeting to instruct officials to remove intelligence data related to the incident while the government was preparing a public statement for Lee’s death.
Suh is also suspected of instructing the Department of Defense, National Intelligence and the Coast Guard to portray Lee as trying to defect in their reports of his murder.
Critics say the Moon government went to great lengths to paint Lee as unsympathetic as she tried to appease a nuclear-armed rival with a ruthless human rights record.
In June, the Department of Defense and Coast Guard reversed the Moon government’s description of the incident, saying there was no evidence that Lee had attempted to defect.
Moon’s Democratic Party issued a statement criticizing Suh’s arrest, saying that suspicions that he would destroy evidence were unreasonable as “all the material is in the hands of Yoon Suk Yeol’s government.”
“The Department of Defense, Coast Guard, National Intelligence and other security-related agencies have made a judgment on the incident in the Western Sea based on an analysis of information and circumstances,” the party said in a statement. It called the investigation a kind of political vendetta.
Yoon’s government is separately investigating the forced repatriation of two North Korean fishermen in 2019 despite their reported desire to resettle in South Korea.
In July, the National Intelligence Service filed charges against Suh and his successor Park Jie-won, alleging abuse of power, destruction of public records and falsification of documents related to the two cases.
The agency charged Park, who served as director until May, with ordering the destruction of intelligence reports about Lee’s death. It accused Suh of forcibly ending an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the 2019 repatriation of the two North Korean fishermen captured in South Korean waters.
Critics say Moon’s government never gave a clear explanation as to why it sent the two escapees back north to face possible execution. Moon officials described the men as criminals who confessed to murder and questioned the sincerity of their desire to defect.
Dozens of international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, released a joint statement accusing Moon’s government of failing to ensure due process or “protect anyone who is at significant risk of torture or other serious human rights violations following repatriation “.
Moon left office with little to show for his commitment to the North, and the investigation into the two incidents has further tarnished his legacy.
Moon met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un three times in 2018 and lobbied hard for Kim’s meetings to be set up with former US President Donald Trump as part of efforts to reverse the nuclear stalemate and improve inter-Korean ties.
But diplomacy never recovered from the failure of the second 2019 Kim-Trump meeting in Vietnam. Talks broke down when the sides failed to agree on trading an end to crippling US-led sanctions against North Korea for moves by the North to scale back its nuclear and missile programs.