S.Korea re-opens case of deported N.Korean fishermen amid rights outcry

SEOUL, June 27 (Reuters) - South Korean prosecutors have re-opened a 2019 case regarding the repatriation of two North Korean fishermen, a minister said on Monday, spurred by public outcry over a previous government’s handling of their constitutional and human rights.

It is one of several cases being reviewed after President Yoon Suk-yeol took office in May, following an election campaign in which he criticised the North Korea policy of his predecessor Moon Jae-in as “submissive”.

“The higher office is looking into the case from square one, as there were disputable elements from the initial investigation,” Unification Minister Kwon Young-se told Reuters after a news conference in Seoul, without elaborating.

The office of higher-level prosecutors has been re-examining the case after those at a lower level cleared several Moon aides of charges filed by a rights group in late 2019 that ranged from aiding a murder to abuse of power, Kwon added.

His ministry oversees engagement with North Korea.

The reopening came after lawmakers of Yoon’s party and rights activists accused Moon of breaching the men’s constitutional and human rights in his effort to improve ties with Pyongyang, which describes defectors as “human scum”.

At the time it deported the fishermen, Moon’s government called them “dangerous criminals” who had killed 16 colleagues in a fight over an abusive captain on their ship before crossing the sea border.

Yoon’s party and defector and human rights groups say the decision imperilled the fishermen’s lives while breaching South Korea’s constitution, which regards all North Koreans as citizens of the South.

Moon, who has kept out of the public eye since leaving office, has not commented on the case.

On Monday his longtime aide Youn Kun-young, now an opposition lawmaker, said the fishermen were “grotesque murderers” undeserving of the South’s protection and resettlement support.

Their fate is unknown, but defectors from the reclusive country have reported harsh punishment for anyone caught or repatriated, including public execution.

“It was a very serious incident that damaged the country’s constitutionalism,” said ruling party lawmaker and former North Korean diplomat Tae Young-ho, adding that while the South should have prosecuted the men, they had now probably been executed. (Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)