On September 24, 2020, it was reported that a man was found dead in the West Sea near the North Korean borders. According to South Korea’s military, the man was Lee Dae-jin, a 47-year-old who worked for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. He was shot dead by North Korean soldiers, who later burned his body.
A few days after the incident, the South Korean Coast Guard told the media that Lee was killed in the process of “voluntarily” fleeing to North Korea, which was highly unusual, to say the least.
On September 21, Lee, who was among 18 officials on a fishery inspection ship, went missing and only his shoes were found onboard. A day later, his body was found in North Korean waters in the West Sea. North Korean soldiers allegedly killed and burned Lee to prevent the Covid-19 virus from entering the country.
In an initial report to the Blue House, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the possibility of Lee defecting to the North was low. The fisheries department also said on September 24 that there was no evidence to support such a claim.
However, on September 28, the Coast Guard reported that Lee escaped from the ship in an attempt to defect to North Korea, based on what it said was evidence collected through wiretapping. There were also unverified allegations that Lee had incurred heavy gambling debts.
Two years have passed but Lee’s bereaved family and the South Korean public are still waiting for answers. The government refused to make public its “evidence” because of confidentiality.
Last June 16, the Coast Guard made a U-turn on its claim about Lee’s voluntary defection and said that there is no evidence to show that is the case.
“We investigated whether the dead public official had defected to North Korea but could not trace how he reached North Korean waters or find any intention of defecting to the North,” Park Sang-chun, who leads the Incheon Coast Guard, said.
Shortly after the announcement, nine high-ranking Coast Guard officers, including Commissioner General Jeong Bong-hoon, offered to resign but the new president did not accept their resignations.
However, as with the Moon administration, the new administration refused to grant access to records of Lee’s death. The records are now classified as presidential records, to be kept concealed for up to 15 years. The president will only release these records when two-thirds of lawmakers at the National Assembly voted yes, which is highly unlikely, or when the court ruled so, which it did last November when Lee’s family filed a lawsuit.
Although Lee’s family won the case, the former administration filed an appeal, citing national security concern. When the new administration took over in May 2022, president Yoon Suk-yeol withdrew the appeal and promised to disclose parts of the records, subject to national security clearance. Lee’s family and the public will then be able to finally find closure.