CHEONAN, North Korea— The former head of South Korea’s national security service was taken into custody on Saturday on suspicion of covering up North Korea’s killing of a South Korean fisheries official in 2020 near the countries’ rivals’ sea boundary.
The arrest of Suh Hoon early on Saturday came as President Yoon Suk Yeol’s conservative government probed his liberal predecessor’s handling of that killing and another border incident that same year, both of which had prompted criticism that Seoul was desperately trying to appease the North in order to improve relations.
Even though he only served one term as president, former leader Moon Jae-in has reacted angrily to the investigation into Suh’s actions because of the importance he placed on improving relations between the two Koreas. This week, Moon released a statement in which he accused Yoon’s government of politicizing and stoking tensions over sensitive security issues by making baseless allegations.
The Seoul Central District Court issued a statement saying that Judge Kim Jeong-min had granted the prosecution’s request to have Suh arrested due to fears that he might try to destroy evidence.
On Friday, when he appeared in court for a review of the prosecution’s warrant request, Suh did not respond to reporters’ questions about the allegations.
After learning that Lee Dae-jun, 47, a fisheries official, was lost at sea in September 2020 near Korea’s western sea boundary,
an investigation by South Korea’s Board of Audit and Inspection concluded that officials from Moon’s government made no meaningful attempt to rescue Lee Dae-jun.
Following the October report confirming Lee’s death at the hands of North Korean troops, officials publicly played up the possibility that he had tried to defect to North Korea, citing his gambling debts and family issues, while concealing evidence suggesting he had no such intention, according to the audit board.
Suh had been Moon’s spy chief for two months prior to the murder when he was promoted to the director position of national security. There are rumors that he ordered the destruction of intelligence files related to Lee’s death during a Cabinet meeting so that the government could provide a plausible explanation for his death to the public.
Suh is also thought to have instructed the Defense Ministry, the National Intelligence Service, and the Coast Guard to frame Lee’s murder as a defection attempt.
Many people feel that in an effort to appease a nuclear-armed rival with a brutal human rights record, the Moon government fabricated a negative image of Lee to use as leverage.
In June, the Defense Ministry and coast guard contradicted the Moon government’s account, claiming there was no proof that Lee had attempted to defect.
Seoul Arrests Ex-Top Security Official Over Border Killing
In a separate probe, Yoon’s government is looking into the 2019 forced repatriation of two North Korean fishermen who reportedly wanted to resettle in South Korea.
In July, the National Intelligence Service brought charges of abuse of power, destruction of public records, and document falsification against Suh and his spy chief successor Park Jie-won.
The director of the agency until May, Park, was accused of ordering the destruction of intelligence reports on Lee’s death. An investigation into the circumstances surrounding the return to North Korea in 2019 of two North Korean fishermen captured in South Korean waters was abruptly closed, according to the report, which accused Suh of doing so.
Moon’s government has been accused of not explaining why it returned two escapees to the North to face possible execution. It was doubted by Moon’s officials that the men really wanted to defect, and they called them criminals who had confessed to murdering.
Human Rights Watch is just one of many international groups that have joined together to accuse Moon’s government of violating basic principles of justice and human rights by failing to ensure that “anyone who would be at substantial risk of torture or other serious human rights violations after repatriation” receives adequate protections before being sent back home.
There was little to show for Moon’s engagement efforts with the North, and his legacy has been tarnished even further by the investigations into the two incidents.
As part of his efforts to defuse the nuclear standoff and improve inter-Korean ties, Moon met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un three times in 2018. Moon also lobbied hard to set up Kim’s meetings with former U.S. President Donald Trump.
After the second Kim-Trump summit in 2019 in Vietnam ended in failure, diplomacy never fully recovered. North Korea and the United States were unable to reach an agreement on ending punishing sanctions in exchange for North Korean measures to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile programs, and the talks broke down as a result.
Human Rights Watch was among dozens of international groups to accuse Moon’s government of violating human rights by not providing due process and failing to “protect anyone who would be at substantial risk of torture or other serious human rights violations after repatriation.”
Moon’s legacy has been tarnished further by the investigations into the two incidents, despite his best efforts to engage the North before leaving office.
Three times in 2018, Moon met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as part of efforts to defuse the nuclear standoff and improve inter-Korean ties. Moon also lobbied hard to set up Kim’s meetings with former U.S. President Donald Trump.
But diplomacy never got back on track after the second Kim-Trump meeting in 2019 in Vietnam ended in disaster. When disagreements arose over how to compensate North Korea for its efforts to dismantle its nuclear and missile programs, the talks broke down.