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Questions about boat from North unanswered

June 28,2019
이미지뷰
Three of four North Korean sailors are photographed on their boat at Samcheok Harbor in Gangwon on June 15. Their clothes were clean and well-pressed, while bags containing food can be seen on the vessel. [NEWS1]
Mystery continues to shroud the defection of two North Korean sailors earlier this month after their wooden boat entered a South Korean harbor completely undetected, which set off a scandal over the lack of alertness by the South’s military.

Jeon Dong-jin, a South Korean fisherman who saw the North Korean boat enter Samcheok Harbor in Gangwon on June 15 told the JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday that he was first filled with curiosity at seeing North Koreans for the first time, but soon became afraid.

“It reminded me of the time an armed North Korean squad infiltrated Gangneung in 1996,” he said, in reference to an incident in which 26 North Korean reconnaissance agents covertly landed near Gangneung, Gangwon, on a submarine but were hunted down by the South Korean army after being spotted. In the ensuing series of firefights that lasted from September to November that year, 12 South Korean soldiers and four civilians were killed, as well as 24 of the North’s agents.

“If the North Koreans on the wooden dinghy had been armed agents, we would have all been killed,” said Jeon.

Four North Koreans were on the boat at sea for six days - four in South Korean waters - until it moored at Samcheok. The first person to report the North Koreans did not belong to the military, but was instead a resident of the harbor city. After questioning, two of the crew defected to the South, while the other two returned to the North through the border village of Panmunjom on June 18.

Many residents of the city are upset with the military’s inability to detect the boat’s infiltration.

“In their words, [the military] said they were closely monitoring the [maritime border] with cutting edge technology, but in reality they did nothing while the dinghy entered the harbor,” said one resident, Jang Hyung-baek. “I can’t help but think we were tricked.”

According to Captain Jeon, Samcheok residents remain particularly dubious about the claim that the North Korean sailors had been marooned on their vessel for almost a week.

“Except for one of them, who looked like he was deliberately growing a beard, the North Koreans were clean-shaven,” he said. “I’ve never heard of a case where people set adrift at sea shave themselves.”

The North Koreans’ clothing was also strange, Jeon said.

“Fishermen also almost never wear clothes with buttons, since the buttons can get caught in fish nets,” he said. “But the North Korean sailors were all wearing buttoned clothes, so I was baffled.” Their pants, he added, also looked like they were ironed recently.

A third enigma regarding the incident is the lack of cutlery found on the boat, given that it had several containers of food that presumably sustained the sailors while at sea. National Intelligence Service officials told lawmakers this week that food including rice, cabbage, salt, potatoes and bean paste were found on the boat, but no mention was made of what tools they used to cook or eat this food. Also, contrary to the North Korean sailors’ testimony that they sold squid to a Chinese ship in exchange for fuel while on their voyage, no evidence of fishing activities were detected on the dinghy.

In Samcheok, these unanswered questions are fueling residents’ anger towards the government’s response. Particularly unacceptable, according to Jang, is the fact that two of the North Koreans were returned back to the North almost immediately without a proper investigation to find out what had truly happened that day and whether they were really just fishermen.

BY LEE KEUN-PYUNG, SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]