SEOUL, Sept. 24 (UPI) — North Korea fatally shot a missing South Korean fisheries official and burned his body earlier this week, defense officials confirmed on Thursday, condemning the “brutal” act.
The 47-year-old victim, an employee of the Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries, went missing on Monday while on an inspection boat patrolling waters roughly 6 miles south of the Northern Limit Line, the disputed maritime boundary between the two Koreas.
“Our military has conducted a thorough analysis of various intelligence reports and confirmed that North Korea has committed a brutal attack by shooting and burning the body of a South Korean national found in North Korean waters,” the defense ministry said in a statement read by Lt. Gen. Ahn Young-ho, chief director of operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“We strongly condemn North Korea’s brutality and strongly urge North Korea to provide an explanation and to punish those responsible for this atrocity,” the statement added.
The unnamed fisheries official went missing in waters roughly 1.2 miles south of Yeongpyeong Island, located on the western side of the peninsula, Ahn said.
His movements were later detected in waters on the North Korean side of the border, defense officials said earlier this week. The official had been reported missing by crew members, who found only his shoes left behind on the ship.
South Korean defense officials believe that the man had intended to defect to North Korea, according to Yonhap News Agency.
The official was picked up and questioned on a North Korean patrol boat out at sea and then executed on orders from a “superior authority,” according to the Yonhap report. He was then doused in gasoline and set on fire as a likely COVID-19 prevention measure, defense officials said.
North Korea has reported no confirmed cases of the coronavirus, although many experts doubt that claim. In July, the communist state shut down the border city of Kaesong after a defector who had fled back from the South was suspected of having the virus. The lockdown was later lifted and no infections were reported.
Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said earlier this month in remarks at an online conference that North Korean troops have “shoot-to-kill orders” on the border to prevent the coronavirus from entering the country.
South Korea’s presidential office condemned the killing on Thursday afternoon.
“It cannot be justified for any reason that the North Korean military shot an unarmed citizen who was not resisting and destroyed the body,” Suh Choo-suk, deputy director of the national security office, said in a statement.
“The North Korean military’s actions are against international norms and humanitarianism and the South Korean government strongly condemns them. North Korea should take full responsibility for this incident, clarify the truth and punish the person in charge,” he said.
Suh added that the killing did not violate the details of the Sept. 19 military agreement between the two Koreas, which was signed in 2018 at a summit between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang.
However, he said that it “undermines the spirit” of the agreement, whose purpose was “alleviating military tensions and building trust in the border region.”
After a briefing with security advisers, President Moon Jae-in called the killing “shocking” and “unacceptable” and said that the military would be placed on alert.
“The military should be fully prepared to protect the lives and safety of the people by further strengthening their alert posture,” Moon said, according to spokesman Kang Min-seok.
Pyongyang has not commented on the incident, which marks the first time a South Korean civilian was killed in North Korea since 2008, when a 53-year-old tourist was fatally shot at the North’s Mt. Kumgang resort area by soldiers after she wandered into a restricted area.
The killing further strains relations between the two Koreas, which deteriorated in the spring when Pyongyang angrily began denouncing the longstanding practice of defectors sending information leaflets across the border via balloons.
North Korea cut off all communications lines with the South and blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong in June in protest.
South Korea’s unification ministry also condemned the killing on Thursday, calling it “unjustifiable for any reason” in a statement.
“These actions of the North Korean military pour cold water on our consistent patience and efforts for reconciliation and peace between the two Koreas,” the statement said.