Activists believe the human rights of two North Korean fishermen were violated by South Korean authorities after new images of their deportation in 2019 come to light.
On November 2, 2019, the South Korean Navy picked up the fishermen off the east coast. An investigation was initiated, but after only three days, South Korean authorities determined that the men were ‘dangerous criminals.’ The men were accused of having been on the run after conspiring to murder 16 other fishermen in North Korea. Hence, the authorities at the time claimed, South Korea was not legally obligated to accept them.
The men were deported on November 7, 2019. The most important piece of evidence, the fishing boat that they were found on, was completely disinfected and returned to North Korea a day later.
Newly released images are calling into question both the investigation that took place and the final decision to deport the fishermen. The pictures show that they were struggling against officials as they were forcibly deported back to the North.
Human rights activists are expressing outrage, claiming that it’s clear that the fishermen knew they were being sent to their deaths.
UN investigator Tomas Ojea Quintana stated on June 29 that the South Korean authorities’ decision to deport the men was a violation of human rights principles.
Chairwoman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition and a Seoul Peace Prize winner, Suzanne Scholte, stated to The Korea Times that the pictures undermined the credibility of the investigation in 2019 and even called into question the accusation of murder against the fishermen.
They (South Korean officials) knew what they were doing was wrong so they started a cover up ― they tried to cover it up by blocking information to know what actually happened, making up an implausible story that the fishermen had committed some horrific crime, and then destroying evidence by sanitizing their boat.
— Suzanne Scholte
Similarly, the deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, stated that sending the fishermen back to the North violated the Constitution and international treaties.
South Korea has ratified the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1995, so it is bound by that international instrument … It’s very clear that North Korea tortures people, especially those who have escaped overseas and then are returned to the DPRK, so this is really a textbook example of South Korea violating international human rights law.
— Phil Robertson
The fact that the fishermen’s human rights may have been violated by South Korean authorities is now raising questions about the previous administration’s actions. According to The Korea Times, an official from President Yoon Seok Yeol‘s office told reporters that “the Yoon administration will step up efforts to uncover the whole truth behind the incident.”
The case is now currently being investigated by the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office.