North Korean troops shot a South Korean government official who may have attempted to defect and set his body on fire, after they found him on a floating object in water near their disputed sea boundary, according to Seoul.
A South Korean announcement said the man disappeared from a government ship checking on potential unauthorised fishing in an area south of the boundary on Monday, a day before he was found in North Korean waters.
South Korean officials held a series of news conferences condemning what they called North Korea’s “atrocious acts” and urging it to apologise and punish those responsible.
Pyongyang sent officials wearing gas masks aboard a boat near the man to learn why he was there on Tuesday afternoon. Later in the day, a North Korean navy boat arrived and opened fire at him, South Korea’s Defence Ministry said.
Sailors from the boat, putting on gas masks and protective suits, poured petrol on his body and set it on fire, the ministry said, citing intelligence gathered by surveillance equipment and other assets. The ministry said it was not clear what caused his death and whether he died after being shot.
It was unclear how he ended up in the North, but a defence official said the man might have tried to defect to North Korea. The official said the man was wearing a life jacket on a small floating object and that the military had obtained information that he wanted to go to North Korea.
The official said North Korea may have determined to kill the man in line with stringent anti-coronavirus rules that involve shooting anyone illegally crossing the border.
North Korea says there has not been a single virus case on its territory, a claim widely disputed by many foreign experts. Observers say a pandemic could cause devastating consequences in North Korea because of its broken public health care system and a chronic shortage of medical supplies.
South Korea sent a message to North Korea through a communication channel at the US-led UN Command in South Korea on Wednesday to ask about the missing official, but the North has not responded, according to the South Korean Defence Ministry.
Senior military officer Ahn Young Ho told reporters that South Korea strongly condemned North Korea’s “atrocious act” and urged it to punish those responsible. He said Seoul used various intelligence to hold Pyongyang responsible for the man’s death.
Little is known about the the 47-year-old man, except that he was among 18 officials aboard the government boat belonging to the Oceans and Fisheries Ministry on Monday.
When his colleagues searched for him after his disappearance, they only found his shoes left on the ship. Days of searches involving aircraft and vessels came up empty handed, according to the defence and oceans ministries.
The incident is expected to deepen already-strained ties between the rivals, whose exchange and co-operation programmes have virtually all been suspended amid a deadlock in broader nuclear diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington.
In June, North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office on its territory to protest against South Korean civilians sending leaflets against the North across the border.
Defections of South Koreans to the North are highly unusual. More than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to the South in the past 20 years for political and economic reasons.
In July, however, a North Korean defector slipped back to North Korea, prompting Pyongyang to impose a lockdown of a border city and declare a state of emergency over virus concerns.