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Navy probe still called despite no infiltration

July 16,2019
An opposition lawmaker has called for a parliamentary investigation into the discovery of an unidentified person at a naval base earlier this month, in spite of the Ministry of National Defense denying on Monday that it was related to an infiltration by hostile forces.

At around 10:00 p.m. on July 4, patrolling soldiers found an unidentified person near the ammunition depot at the Second Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, but the figure ran away without providing identification. During the search for the mysterious person, soldiers found a rubber boat and swimming fins at the entrance of the naval base’s nearby golf course, generating speculation that hostile forces may have infiltrated the area.

The person was caught later that night and discovered to be a sentry at a nearby site, according to the Defense Ministry. But during a post-incident internal investigation the next day, an officer also allegedly forced soldiers to make false testimonies regarding the incident to prevent the case from escalating further.

According to the ministry, the soldier who fled the scene left his rifle at his assigned post and used a vending machine around 200 meters (656 feet) away when he was seen by other patrolling soldiers. Neither his flight nor the coincidental discovery of the rubber boat and fins - which were later found to be owned by a physical trainer at the base used for private leisure purposes - had any connection to a hostile infiltration, the ministry said.

The field officer who forced his subordinates to make false confessions, however, has been booked on criminal charges for abuse of authority, the ministry added. According to a subsequent inquiry, the officer independently judged that an extended probe would be a hassle and asked one soldier to pose as the figure who took flight and say that he was surprised by the patrol while smoking in front of the ammunition depot.

The soldier who lied, however, was not booked on any charges since he had been forced by his commanding officer, with whom he shared a close relationship.

This explanation by the Defense Ministry did not satisfy Rep. Kim Joong-ro of the Bareunmirae Party, the opposition lawmaker who first shed public light on the case last week. On Monday, Kim called for a comprehensive parliamentary inquiry into the Ministry of Defense, Blue House National Security Office and the National Intelligence Service on the issue, saying that such a probe would be the “only way for the military to recover its lost credibility.”

He added that the military had to reveal further information on the incident, like surveillance footage of all outside visitors to the base around the day in question and the entirety of the information shared by the military with the police.

“The Blue House national security adviser and the defense minister should resign simultaneously,” Kim said. “The recent string of incidents suggests national security has collapsed altogether.”

Kim’s reference to earlier incidents is to a scandal surrounding the military’s apparent inability to detect a security breach on the country’s eastern maritime border, through which a wooden boat carrying four North Korean men sailed on South Korean waters for 58 hours until it finally moored at Samcheok Harbor in Gangwon on June 12.

Suspicions were raised that the military had tried to cover up the incident with the false initial claim that the boat was discovered while adrift due to engine failure near the harbor. Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo issued a public apology earlier this month admitting to the military’s failure to detect the incident, though he denied there had been a deliberate attempt to conceal the truth.

The scandal, however, may have incurred a human cost. On July 10, a soldier who had been a sentry near Samcheok Harbor that day committed suicide by jumping off a bridge in Seoul.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]