Security is tight on the South Korea-controlled island of Yeonpyeong near the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea. Photo: AFP

The elder brother of a South Korean official shot in the Yellow Sea and burned by North Korean troops last week denied widespread allegations that his brother had sought to defect.

Lee Rae-jin, speaking to foreign correspondents in Seoul, refuted suggestions that his brother had tried to go over to North Korea, and made a series of demands, including for an international investigation of the incident.

He declined to give the full name of his deceased sibling – who has remained unidentified – to protect his brother’s two children.

On September 21, his 47-year-old brother went missing from a South Korean fisheries vessel operating close to the disputed inter-Korean maritime border, the Northern Limit Line, in the Yellow Sea.

At around 3:30pm on September 22, he was apprehended in North Korean waters by North Korean troops and questioned. Some six hours after being intercepted, he was shot in the water and his body burned.

South Korea was shocked by the incident, which was revealed in considerable detail by a briefing by Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense on September 24.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a rare apology on September 25 which was revealed to the public by Seoul. In it, North Korea admitted that man had been killed and then his flotation device burned, in anti-Covid-19 measures.

The case continues to generate traction in South Korean media. Given that the official removed his sandals, donned a life vest and used a flotation device in the water, the widespread assumption has been that he was seeking to defect to the North.

“Based on the investigation so far, we believe that he intended to defect to the North,” Yoon Seong-hyun, chief of the Coast Guard’s investigation team, said on Tuesday.

Also, partly state-owned newswire Yonhap reported that South Korean signals intelligence had picked up conversations between the North Korean boat and its shore command, in which the official said he wanted to defect.

These assumptions were questioned by Lee.

Lee, who said he was in his mid-fifties, and who remembered multiple North Korean threats while growing up, said that his brother had years of experience as a trawler captain before becoming a “loyal official” with the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries eight years ago. He was second-in-command of the 500-ton vessel from which he went missing.

Lee said that he had warned his brother of the danger of his job as a fishing inspector, given that there have been violent clashes in the areas between South Korean authorities and Chinese fishermen.

The two had spoken two days before the disappearance, and Lee said this brother had given no hint of any move to defect.  

He admitted that his brother had financial problems – as has been reported in South Korean media. But if similar problems were motivations to defect, then “close to 50-60% of ordinary people living in South Korea would defect,” Lee said. “Even the largest corporation has debt.”

Lee accused South Korean authorities of failing to rescue his brother during the 30 hours he was adrift, and the six hours he was questioned in the water by North Korean sailors – with the latter not letting him board their vessel.

“My brother drifted for 20-30 hours in South Korean waters and was captured or arrested just 0.2 miles north of the Northern Limit Line,” he said. “He spent much more time in a 10-mile radius south of the NLL in South Korean waters … but just 0.2 miles north of the NLL, my brother was arrested immediately.”

In the “golden time” to find and rescue his brother, Lee said insufficient assets were deployed. He also accused a naval officer of wasting time by counting life jackets aboard the vessel from which he disappeared.

However, since more and more South Korean vessels have joined the search for the body, North Korea has warned them not to cross the NLL.

Lee Rae-jin, the elder brother of a man killed by North Korean forces last week, speaks to foreign reporters in Seoul. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Defection gone wrong?

Lee cited the brutality of the incident to cast doubt on the defection narrative. “Why would they kill him if he disclosed his intention to go North?” he asked. “I think that is the exact reason my brother did not defect, they killed him!”

North Korea cited anti-Covid measures for the incident. And when asked what possible motivation his brother could have had for leaving his vessel with a life jacket and buoy if not defection, Lee declined to answer.

Instead, he criticized the speed of the Coast Guard’s investigation.

“It seems they reached a conclusion from the beginning to support the conclusion that my brother had defected to the North,” he said.

Lee said that he believed that his brother had hidden his sandals under a rope on the ship while “familiarizing himself with the vessel.”

Lee, who joined the search for his brother on September 21 after being contacted by fisheries officials, said that he had tried to find the truth by contacting the Ministry of Unification, the Ministry of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but “they tossed me between government agencies.”

The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, did, however, send him a letter of consolation on September 25.

He suggested that Seoul is using the incident to sweep away social and political issues, “like a tornado.”

Lee also made a series of requests, which included calling for an international probe and for the US to disclose any intelligence it has on the matter.

The government’s fault?

The incident in the Yellow Sea is not the first maritime tragedy in recent years with political ramifications. In 2014, the ferry Sewol sank off Korea’s south coast with the loss of 304 lives – largely children on a school trip.

Though its captain abandoned the Sewol, and a purser had ordered, via public address system, to remain in their cabins below decks as the ship foundered, public anger was not assuaged by crew convictions.

The Coast Guard and then-president Park Geun-hye soon came in for furious criticism for botching the rescue and for not properly overseeing the crisis.

Anger over the Sewol tragedy never died down. Two years later, when corruption and abuse-of-power allegations surfaced, massive protests led to Park’s impeachment, subsequent arrest and jailing. She is now serving a 33-year sentence.

The succeeding Moon Jae-in administration has prioritized public health and safety. In 2019, it successfully combated a massive wildfire in the country’s northeast with the loss of just one human life, and in 2020 has been widely applauded, globally, for its effective containment of Covid-19.

“South Koreans do expect a lot of their government and they certainly expect it to protect them, so when something goes wrong, the natural instinct is to blame the government,” said Seoul-based author Michael Breen, author of The New Koreans.

“There is a natural instinct, when something goes wrong in this country there is a desire to hurl blame and to want to blame the government rather than to see things as unfortunate circumstances.”