Former Head of South Korea's Coast Guard Arrested in Cover-Up Scandal

Korea Coast Guard
File image courtesy Korea Coast Guard

Published Oct 22, 2022 10:11 PM by The Maritime Executive

South Korea's former coast guard commissioner has been arrested in connection with an alleged cover-up, along with a former minister of defense. The two men are under investigation for allegedy falsifying reports on the shooting death of a fisheries officer near the North Korean boundary two years ago. 

On September 21, 2020, South Korean fisheries official Lee Dae-jin went missing from his patrol boat near the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime boundary between North and South Korea. The following day, he was found floating on the North Korean side of the line, shot dead. North Korea admitted responsibility for the shooting and issued a rare apology.

South Korean officials initially suggested that Lee had been fleeing financial problems and was attempting to defect to the North - an accusation his family has vehemently denied. 

The incident occurred while the South Korean government of Prime Minister Moon Jae-in was attempting to normalize relations with Pyongyang, and the Moon administration has been accused of trying to smooth over the fatal encounter in an attempt to preserve its (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts at diplomacy. 

In June, South Korea's Coast Guard admitted that there was no evidence to support the "defection" theory for Lee's death. Multiple lines of investigation into the handling of the incident were opened in the weeks that followed, including a parliamentary inquiry, a prosecutorial investigation, and an inquest by South Korea's Board of Audit and Inspection.

The board's recently-released findings are scandalous: the panel found evidence that Lee was in the water for hours before his shooting, and that the coast guard did not attempt to enlist nearby merchant shipping in the search. After the killing, the investigation found, defense officials allegedly destroyed dozens of factual records from the case and promoted an alternative narrative about Lee's death - that he had tried to defect. 

The board has composed a list of 20 officials for prosecutors to investigate, including the nation's two most senior maritime security officials at the time of the incident, ex-Coast Guard Commissioner Kim Hong-hee and former Defense Minister Suh Wook. Suh oversaw intelligence reporting and public information releases about the incident, while Kim was responsible for the initial investigation into the fatality.

Seoul's Central District Court issued arrest warrants for Suh and Kim on Saturday, taking the unusual step of detaining top-ranked former officials because of risk of flight or destruction of evidence. They face charges of forgery, abuse of power and dereliction of duty. 

Former President Moon has also received questions from the Board of Audit and Inspection, though without a court order. His defenders in South Korea's Democratic Party contend that the board's probe is politically motivated, and have accused the agency of abuse of power.