A death on the border

Several days ago, a middle-aged man named Nam Young-ho was shot to death while crossing the Imjin River, which divides North and South Korea.  Such stories are sadly not uncommon, but the particular facts make this case quite unusual: Nam was a South Korean trying to enter the North, and was shot by South Korean soldiers.  This killing received relatively little attention in the news (perhaps in part because it occurred on the same day as a larger tragedy in the US), but it’s hard to view it as anything other than a terrible injustice.  I’ve been racking my brains, and I can’t figure out a plausible justification.  From news reports, it sounds like the South Korean military is standing by the soldiers’ actions and no prosecution is forthcoming.  This makes the killing all the more disturbing – it was not the result of poor training or accident, but a deliberate and pernicious policy to use lethal force on anyone attempting to cross into the North.

The right to emigrate is widely recognized, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Article 13 (2) states: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”  This is an important component of the freedom of movement.  To physically prevent, on pain of death, citizens from leaving one’s country is a form of imprisonment and typically only practiced by the most repressive regimes.  Now, South Korea (unlike North Korea) does not have a *general* policy restricting emigration, and the two countries are technically still at war.  The South could make the claim that Nam’s defection posed a material threat to South Koreans’ lives.  But Nam was not in possession of war secrets or military intelligence; at most, he would be used in propaganda materials by the North’s government.  Such propaganda can be harmful, to be sure, but it is beyond the pale to suggest it merits the death penalty.

Note that this right to emigrate does not imply a corresponding right to immigrate – the UN does not advocate for completely open borders.  Arguably, North Korea would have been within its rights to forcibly repel Nam (though lethal force would have probably been unnecessary, as Nam was unarmed, easily spotted and could have been deported promptly).  In theory the South Koreans could argue that they were acting on North Korea’s behalf, protecting the North from incursion.  But the two Koreas are quite hostile and hardly cooperative in these matters.  In fact, both sides welcome defectors (often using them for propaganda purposes).  Nam was not killed to further the interests of the North, but the South.

In defense of the killing of Nam, CNN quoted South Korean Brigadier General Cho Jong-Sul as saying, “It is a regulation to shoot anyone who does not respond to the command and tries to escape in the controlled area.”  This confirms the killing was the result of a deliberate existing policy, not one soldier’s tragic error.  Of course, that hardly excuses the killing – it rather makes the South Korean military itself complicit in and responsible for Nam’s death.  From reports, it appears this is the first time since the war that such a policy has actually been enforced by the South on an unarmed civilian (or at least, the first time it’s been made publically known).  This is likely due to the rarity of defection to the North – most defections are in the opposite direction, with North Koreans fleeing famine and political oppression.  But as the death of Nam reveals, the South still maintains its own oppressive and murderous policies. 

Perhaps there is a reasonable justification for the soldiers’ actions that I have missed, and commenters can point that out.  But barring that, I hope this incident prompts the South to scrap the border policy that is evidently in place.  Opposing the North Korean regime, which thinks nothing of murdering its own citizens when the dear leader so pleases, may well be justified, but the South should not stoop to the North’s own level to do so.

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