North Korean soldiers shot a missing South Korean fisheries official to death and burned his body on board a North Korean vessel just north of the inter-Korean maritime border this week, the South’s defense ministry confirmed on Thursday.
The 47-year-old official was affiliated with South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries (MOF), South Korean news agency Yonhap reported. His colleagues reported him missing on Monday morning while on duty aboard an inspection boat in waters off the western border island of Yeonpyeong in the Yellow Sea.
“North Korea found the man in its waters and committed an act of brutality by shooting at him and burning his body, according to our military’s thorough analysis of diverse intelligence,” South Korea’s defense ministry said in a statement.
“Our military strongly condemns such a brutal act and strongly urges the North to provide an explanation and punish those responsible,” the statement read. “We also sternly warn North Korea that all responsibilities for this incident lie with it.”
The official “is presumed to have jumped into the sea Monday in a suspected attempt to defect to the North,” according to officials of the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). The man is then presumed to have drifted into North Korean waters.
South Korea’s MOF said that the official’s colleagues “found his shoes on the boat and reported his disappearance to the [South Korean] Coast Guard” on Monday around noon. The coast guard then launched a major search operation for the missing man but failed to find him.
The next day, sailors aboard a North Korean vessel spotted the official floating in the Yellow Sea “at around 3:30 pm Tuesday,” according to the Korea Herald. The North Korean sailors “put gas masks on and questioned him from a distance while leaving him in the waters. The South Korean was wearing a life jacket and relying on an unidentified floating item.”
The North Korean sailors found the official “in waters about 3 to 4 kilometers north of the Northern Limit Line (NLL),” according to the JCS. The NLL serves as the de facto inter-Korean maritime border. The man was found specifically near Deungsangot, or Deungsan Cape, located just under 24 miles from where he was reported missing.
During his questioning by North Korean sailors, the South Korean official reportedly expressed a desire to defect to the North.
“At around 9:40 p.m. [on Tuesday], the North Korean soldiers aboard their vessel shot him before pouring oil over his body and setting it aflame at around 10 pm,” a JCS official said, according to the Korea Herald. The JCS official added that “the act was believed to have been done in accordance with ‘orders from its superior authority.'”
According to the newspaper, “South Korean surveillance equipment set up on Yeonpyeong Island [the border island located near the site of the official’s disappearance on Monday] also captured flames Tuesday night, which were later confirmed to have been from the North’s burning of the body.”
“We judge that North Korea appears to have done such acts against humanity of unconditionally shooting an individual as part of its (Chinese coronavirus) quarantine guidelines,” the JCS official said, without providing further details.
Despite Pyongyang denying the existence of any official Chinese coronavirus cases in North Korea, the country has enforced extreme coronavirus countermeasures over the past six months in an effort to fight the virus’s spread. In January, North Korea shut its border with China to reduce virus transmission. In June, the country was forced to lock down its third-largest city, Chongjin, to contain a major local outbreak. In July, Pyongyang issued a maximum level emergency alert against the virus.
On September 10, the U.S. military revealed that North Korea recently issued “shoot-to-kill” orders to a special border unit it deployed along its boundary with China.
The North designated a new “buffer zone, one or two kilometers up on the Chinese border,” U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) Commander Gen. Robert Abrams told an online conference organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
“They’ve got North Korean SOF (Special Operations Forces) out there. … Strike forces, they’ve got shoot-to-kill orders in place,” he said.