North Korean troops shoot down South Korean official in murky circumstances

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South Korea said Thursday that North Korean troops shot and killed a South Korean government official who allegedly tried to defect and set his body on fire after finding it on a floating object near the disputed maritime border of the country.South Korean officials condemned what they called North Korea’s “atrocious act” and urged it to apologize and punish those responsible. North Korea is unlikely to accept South Korea’s request, and ties between rivals – already strained at a dead end in broader nuclear diplomacy – are likely to suffer another setback, observers say.

According to Seoul, the man disappeared from a government vessel monitoring possible unauthorized fishing in an area south of the border on Monday, a day before he was discovered in North Korean waters.

North Korea sent officials wearing gas masks aboard a boat near the man to find out why he was there on Tuesday afternoon. Later that day, a North Korean Navy boat came over and opened fire on him, the South Korean Defense Ministry said.

Sailors on the boat dressed in gas masks and protective suits poured gasoline on his body and set him on fire, the Defense Ministry said, citing intelligence gathered by surveillance equipment and others. means.

South Korean Marines are patrolling Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, on Thursday after the deadly incident. (Choi Jin-suk / Newsis / AP)

It is not known how he ended up in North Korea. But a defense official said the man may have tried to defect north, citing information gained. He refused to elaborate. The official, requesting anonymity, citing departmental rules, said the South Korean official was wearing a life jacket and was on a small floating object when he was found in North Korean waters.

He said North Korea may have decided to kill him under its strict anti-coronavirus rules which involve shooting at anyone crossing the border illegally.

General Robert Abrams, commander of US troops in South Korea, said last month that North Korea had placed special forces along its border with China to prevent smugglers from entering and that they had put in place of “shoot-to-kill orders” aimed at preventing the virus from entering the country.

Recent slowdown in relationships

North Korea has firmly said there has not been a single case of the virus in its territory, a claim widely disputed by foreign experts. Observers say a pandemic could have devastating consequences in North Korea due to its broken public health care system and a chronic shortage of medical supplies.

South Korea sent a message to North Korea on Wednesday asking questions about the missing official, but did not receive a response, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry.

Lt. Gen. Ahn Young Ho, a senior official in the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the South Korean Army, condemned North Korea’s actions at a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Seoul Thursday. (Kookbang Ilbo / The Associated Press)

Senior Officer Ahn Young Ho told reporters on Thursday that South Korea strongly condemned North Korea’s “atrocious act” and urged it to punish those responsible. Senior presidential official Suh Choo-suk told a separate press conference that North Korea should apologize for its “act against humanity”, reveal all the details of the case and take action to avoid similar incidents.

“For some reason, North Korea cannot justify its soldiers fatally shooting our citizen and damaging his body, although he was unarmed and has no intention of resistance,” Suh ​​said. .

President Moon Jae-in called the incident “shocking”, “intolerable” and “very regrettable”. He ordered the military to step up its readiness.

Little is known about the 49-year-old South Korean except that he was one of 18 officials aboard the government boat owned by the Department of Oceans and Fisheries. When his colleagues searched for him after his disappearance, they found only his shoes in the back of the ship. The days of searches involving planes and ships were unsuccessful, according to the Defense Ministry.

The Department of Oceans said Thursday it had no evidence that the deceased official attempted to defect or accidentally fell from the ship. He said the official did not notify his colleagues of his intention to defect and left most of his personal effects, such as clothing and essentials on the ship.

Several bloody naval skirmishes and two deadly attacks blamed on North Korea have taken place in recent years at the country’s poorly marked western maritime border. The government ship was near Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea, which was hit by North Korean artillery in 2010, killing four people.

The incident is expected to worsen the already icy ties between the Koreas, whose exchanges and cooperation programs have been virtually interrupted. In June, North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office to protest South Korean civilians sending leaflets against the North across the border.

Affirmation of the “somewhat strange” defection: analyst

Some experts said the government’s explanation that the official tried to defect lacked evidence. They said the government might want to prevent strong anti-North Korean sentiment to keep the chances of talks between nations alive.

“An official who defected to North Korea?” I think it sounds a little strange because he has stable job security, ”said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “Why did North Korea deliberately shoot a man who was defecting to the North?” I can also say that the burning of his body was an attempt to cover up evidence.

Moon’s liberal government has been criticized by conservatives that it sympathizes too much with North Korea and failed to respond strongly enough to past provocations from the North, such as the destruction of the liaison office and crass slurs against the South. .

In 2008, North Korean soldiers shot dead a visiting South Korean tourist who had walked through a restricted area of ​​the scenic northern Diamond Mountain resort. South Korea’s conservative government has responded by suspending tours of the station.

The People’s Power Party, the conservative opposition, has urged Moon’s government to take tough action. “The reason for the existence of the government is to protect its people and their property,” he said in a statement.

The South Koreans’ defaults to North Korea are very unusual. More than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea in the past 20 years for political and economic reasons.

In July, however, a North Korean defector returned to North Korea, prompting the North to impose a lockdown on a border town and declare a state of emergency over virus concerns.

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