Wrapping up a yearlong investigation, the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) concluded, Thursday, that the former Moon Jae-in government did almost nothing to save a South Korean fisheries official who went missing and was killed later in North Korean waters near the western sea border in 2020.
After the official was killed and his body was burned by North Korean soldiers, the Moon government tried to cover up and distort facts related to the case in a bid to avoid responsibility, the state auditor added.
The BAI announced the results after carrying out the inspection into the previous government's handling of Lee Dae-jun, who worked for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and was shot near the western maritime demarcation line on Sept. 22, 2020.
In its conclusion, the BAI demanded that 13 government officials involved in what it described as illegal and unfair practices be disciplined or cautioned, and that those records be left in their personnel information to be viewable by employers when they seek reemployment. These 13 people reportedly include former Defense Minister Suh Wook and former Coast Guard Commissioner General Kim Hong-hee.
The case was revisited under the Yoon Suk Yeol administration since June last year after the Coast Guard overturned the Moon government's earlier conclusion that the late official had been killed while attempting to defect to the North.
The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea denounced the inspection as being politically motivated, claiming that the state auditor abandoned its independence and neutrality after receiving instructions from the Yoon administration.
The BAI unveiled the final results of its yearlong inspection in the form of a press release and did not make public the original text, citing national security reasons.
According to the auditor, the presidential National Security Office (NSO), Coast Guard, Ministry of Unification, Ministry of National Defense, National Intelligence Service (NIS) and other related agencies did not take proper steps when Lee was still alive.
The NSO, the national crisis management control tower, did not share information about the situation with the unification ministry even after it received the report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) on the afternoon of Sept. 22, 2020 that the missing South Korean official had been discovered in North Korean waters.
Suh Hoon, who was the NSO chief at the time, left work early, before the life threatening conditions of the South Korean citizen were addressed.
The JCS, which was aware of the situation at about 4 p.m. that day, told the defense ministry that there was nothing that the military needed to do as the case should be handled by the unification ministry.
The defense ministry, after receiving the report from the JCS, did not review the need to send a message to the North or take measures to save Lee.
The Coast Guard received the report from the NSO at about 6 p.m., but did not work to obtain additional information nor request for cooperation from the defense ministry.
A director-level official at the unification ministry received the report from the NIS, but did not report it to the minister or the vice minister.
After the fisheries official was shot to death and his body was burned by North Korean soldiers, these agencies attempted to conceal and distort facts related to the case, and jumped to the conclusion that he attempted to defect to the North, in a bid to avoid responsibility, according to the auditor.
At a government meeting held at 1 a.m. on Sept. 23, the NSO issued guidance to keep the case confidential, and the defense ministry, at 2:30 a.m., ordered the JCS to delete the related data.
The defense ministry, the NIS and the Coast Guard all knew that the fisheries official's attempt to defect to the North was not verified, but followed the NSO's guidance. The government at the time announced the official's alleged defection attempt to the public multiple times.
"That was different from the fact," the state auditor said. "The government at the time even disclosed private information pertaining to Lee."
Former NSO chief Suh Hoon, former NIS head Park Ji-won, former Defense Minister Suh Wook and other 17 people are currently standing trial regarding the case, as the auditor asked the prosecution to investigate them, when its interim audit results were announced in October last year.