|A South Korean Navy vessel, unseen, tows a North Korean squid fishing boat in the East Sea, Nov. 8. Two North Korean fishermen were on board when they entered the territorial waters of South Korea. They were later alleged to have killed 16 of their peers. / Yonhap|
By Jhoo Dong-chan
It was late at night in October when three North Korean fishermen conspired to kill their captain after suffering months of not only verbal abuse but also habitual assaults on the ship.
In an effort to approach the captain's quarters, it was essential to first take out the two fishermen on night duty. The three culprits sneaked up behind their two peers, who were on night watch at the stem and the stern, to kill them with a blunt instrument.
They then brutally murdered their captain when he was sleeping in his quarters, and dumped the three victims' bodies in the water.
According to the government's joint investigation team, there were 13 other fishermen who were sleeping below deck that night. In a bid to continue with their action, they also decided to kill the remaining 13 fishermen two at a time with axes and hammers by waking them up and luring them out to the bow and stern.
The three also disposed of those bodies in the sea.
The fishermen and their 16 victims, including the captain, set out from Kimchaek Port in late August to catch squid in the East Sea. For the next month-and-a half, they fished in North Korean and Russian waters.
During the investigation, the three fishermen were found to have suffered violence from the captain. Of the three, two were engineers and the other was a boatswain.
Other than the captain, the murder victims were reportedly laborers mobilized by the North Korean authorities. They had no fishing experience, according to the investigation results.
One of the three culprits was caught by the North Korean authorities when they docked at a port near Kimchaek Port, North Hamgyong Province, in late October. The fishermen said during the investigation that they stopped there to sell squid and other fish to secure the funds to escape.
The remaining two set off from the port to sail south immediately after their colleague was captured Oct 31. Their ship was then apprehended by the Republic of Korea Navy in the East Sea, Nov. 2.
During a recent National Assembly hearing, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said that the two fishermen "wanted to go back to North Korea even if they would have to die there."
Kim's National Assembly remarks; however, were deemed controversial.
When the Navy firing warning shots at their boat, they reportedly didn't shift their heading for the South.
During questioning, the two consistently stated their desire to defect to South Korea. They even stated their request to defect in their own handwriting, according to government documents, copies of which were obtained by The Korea Times.
The government, however, deported them to North Korea Nov. 7, claiming their statements were "inconsistent."
South Korea's human rights groups immediately condemned the decision to deport them to the North where they are likely to face torture and execution. During the hearing, opposition party lawmakers also denounced the decision based on South Korea's Constitution that in theory recognizes North Koreans as South Korean nationals who should be judged by South Korean law.
South Korea usually accepts North Korean refugees following a background check. Lawmakers claimed, therefore, the government should have provided them with proper legal protection until their guilt was determined by the courts.
"They should have faced trial here under the nation's Constitution," said local lawyer Kang Yeon-wha. "Of course, the verdict is likely to be harsh since they were convicted of premeditated homicide killing 16 people. The government's decision is against the basic framework of the Constitution. This would leave a bad precedent in handling North Korean defectors."
During Kim's week-long trip to the United States in mid-November, a North Korean defector group staged a rally against him over the decision to deport the North Korean fishermen when Kim held a press conference at a restaurant near Washington, D.C.
"You and President Moon Jae-in are murderers, sending the two young men back to North Korea," the defector group leader Park Sang-hak said during the event. "Even Kim Hyon-hui, who was responsible for bombing an airplane that killed 115 people, was not sent back to the North."
The unification ministry said in a press release that the government won't send North Koreans settled here back to the North even if they commit a crime.