“We decided to expel them because they were atrocious criminals who could threaten the lives and safety of our people if accepted into our society,” said the South Korean unification minister, Kim Yeon-chul, who added that the two “lacked sincerity when they said they wanted to defect.”
Few matters are that simple on the divided Korean Peninsula, however.
Although the South’s Constitution claims North Korea as part of its territory, both sides in reality have also recognized each other’s territorial sovereignty. They joined the United Nations at the same time, and have held summit meetings and signed agreements to bolster economic and other forms of cooperation. In the past decade, South Korea has returned 185 North Korean fishermen adrift in its waters who wanted to return home. In the same period, North Korea sent home 16 South Koreans who entered the North illegally.
In previously holding to its policy of never returning any North Koreans who said they wanted to defect, the South had welcomed people with tainted pasts. At least 270 North Korean defectors living in the South were found to have committed crimes serious enough to disqualify them from government subsidies, including nine who had committed murder or other serious offenses, according to government data.
“I am just flabbergasted,” wrote Joo Sung-ha, a defector-turned-journalist in Seoul, referring to the South’s refusal to believe the two North Koreans’ stated intention to defect. “If they defected to the South, they had a chance to live, and if they returned to the North, it was 100 percent certain that they would die. Under such circumstances, wasn’t it natural for them to want to defect?”
Rights advocates were especially disappointed because the office of President Moon Jae-in coordinated the repatriation. Before winning the presidency, Mr. Moon had been a famed human rights lawyer who once defended six Korean-Chinese men who murdered 11 crewmen, including seven South Koreans, on a tuna fishing boat in 1996.
“President Moon Jae-in and his government are ignoring North Korea’s grave human rights abuses in a misguided effort to mollify Kim Jong-un and improve relations with Pyongyang,” said Phil Robertson, the Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch.
Instead of hurrying to repatriate the two North Koreans, South Korea should have thoroughly investigated the case, including “whether ‘the brutal criminals’ were in reality not the abusers but victims of the harsh circumstance of North Korea,” Ra Jong-yil, the former deputy director of the South’s National Intelligence Service, wrote in the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper.