(ATTN: ADDS unification minister's remarks in para 9, details in last 2 paras)
By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, Nov. 15 (Yonhap) -- The unification ministry said Friday that there is no doubt that the two recently deported North Koreans had killed 16 fellow crew members before they were captured near the eastern inter-Korean sea border.
The ministry handling inter-Korean affairs said that two were separately interrogated but provided almost the same story, the credibility of which was enhanced further by the fact that North Korea was aware of their criminal acts.
"There was no doubt that they had committed criminal acts, as intelligence, testimonies from separate interrogations of the two captured fishermen and the North's response were all consistent with each other," the ministry said in a report submitted to lawmakers.
Last week, South Korea sent back the two men in their 20s to North Korea, five days after they were captured near the eastern inter-Korean sea boarder.
The two fishermen later confessed that they and another crew member killed the captain of their fishing boat out of anger over his physical abuse before killing the remaining fellow crew members one by one later. The third person was arrested in the North when they tried to sneak back to their home country.
The North Koreans expressed a desire to defect, but the South dismissed their intentions as insincere, saying that they could be a potential threat to the lives and safety of its citizens. It was the first deportation of North Koreans since the 1950-53 Korean War.
The ministry said that the two North Koreans appeared to have tried to destroy the evidence of their crimes by dumping the dead bodies and the tools they used to kill their fellow fishermen and even painting the boat to remove blood stains.
In the process of deporting them, the ministry said it found that the North had already known about their crimes, adding that it must have been aware of them based on its own investigation of the fisherman it arrested.
Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul told lawmakers that it was questionable whether the North Koreans could be prosecuted and brought to justice in South Korea due to a lack of hard evidence and witnesses.
Critics have accused the government of hastily repatriating them based only on their confessions, saying their human rights were violated, given that they will likely face torture and even death in the North.
The ministry said that it will seek legal and regulatory supplements to existing manuals and guidelines to better handle such cases in the future.
These could include efforts to clarify what constitutes a heinous crime, a more objective process in confirming the intention behind defections and possible inter-Korean cooperation in criminal extradition, it added.
The ministry emphasized that last week's deportation has no impact on North Korean defectors who have already resettled in South Korean society following legal procedures, dismissing concerns over forced expulsion in their community.
There are around 32,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. Seoul usually accepts North Koreans as defectors if they wish to resettle here to avoid oppression and poverty and it repatriates those who drift to the South in a fishing vessel, according to their wishes.
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