(ATTN: ADDS more details in paras 3, 6-10, 13-16, photo)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, June 20 (Yonhap) -- Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo apologized Thursday amid mounting public criticism that the military failed to detect a North Korean boat crossing the maritime border and lied to cover up the failure.
The military has come under fire following revelations that the small North Korean wooden boat crossed the inter-Korean maritime border and sailed undeterred in the South's territorial waters in the East Sea for about three days before arriving at the port of Samcheok, Gangwon Province, on Saturday.
Samcheok is around 130 kilometers south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas.
"The military has taken the situation regarding the North Korean small wooden boat seriously and deeply apologizes to the people," Jeong said in his public message.
Jeong vowed to "sternly reprimand those responsible" and "complement a vigilance posture to prevent recurrences and further tighten discipline" after thoroughly checking military surveillance operations in the wake of the incident.
Neither military nor the Coast Guard took action and were ignorant of the case until a South Korean civilian found the boat with four North Koreans aboard and reported them to police. Two of them even walked around and one asked the citizen if he could borrow a mobile phone to contact a relative residing in Seoul.
But the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) initially said that its overall coastal and maritime defense operations had proceeded "normally."
Adding to criticism is that authorities had earlier said that the boat was stranded in the East Sea due to an engine failure, but it turned out that the vessel had no such trouble.
They also said the boat was found "near" the port, stopping short of giving exact details of how it was tied up by the quay, raising suspicions of a cover-up.
"As for several suspicions raised following the incident, we will fully explain them to the people to erase even a speck of doubt," he said, pledging to conduct thorough investigations and implment stern measures accordingly if there were any false reports or concealment attempts.
In order to find out exactly what happened and what went wrong, the ministry set up an investigation team Wednesday and began a probe into the Navy and Army troops in charge of maritime and coastal surveillance in the region.
"In accordance with probe results and related law, we will take corresponding steps against those responsible and devise appropriate follow-up measures swiftly," the ministry said in a release.
According to military authorities, the 1.8-ton wooden boat with a 28-horsepower engine originated from North Hamgyong Province on June 9 and crossed the NLL unchecked three days later.
After moving further south over the following two days, the crew turned the engine off late Friday and remained 4 kilometers away from the port until dawn. The boat then began moving to the shore and reached the dock at around 6:20 a.m. on Saturday.
The initial probe found that they were civilians, and at least two of them intentionally crossed the border to defect.
Of the four, two were returned to their home country Tuesday, according to their wishes. But the remaining two expressed their desire to defect to the South and have been going through due procedures required for such defectors, the unification ministry said.
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