North Korean troops killed missing South Korean, then burned his body, Seoul says

A photo from May 5, 2017, shows a soldier standing at the fence of the Demilitarised Zone near Ganghwa.
A photo from May 5, 2017, shows a soldier standing at the fence of the Demilitarised Zone near Ganghwa.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) - A South Korean fisheries official who went missing this week was questioned on a North Korean patrol boat before being shot dead by troops who then doused his body in oil and set it on fire, South Korea’s military said on Thursday (Sept 24).

South Korea’s military said evidence suggested the man was attempting to defect to the North when he was reported missing from a fisheries boat on Monday about 10km south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), a disputed demarcation of military control that acts as the de facto maritime boundary between North and South Korea.

He was wearing a lifejacket, a military official told AFP, adding that “circumstances tell us that there was an intent to defect”, without providing evidence.

The exact reason the 47-year-old official was shot is not known but North Korean troops may have been acting under anti-coronavirus orders, South Korea’s military said.

Citing intelligence sources, the military said the unidentified man appeared to have been questioned on a North Korean boat before he was executed on an “order from a superior authority”.

Troops in gas masks then doused the body in oil and set it on fire, the South’s military said.

The burning appears to have been intended as a precaution against the coronavirus, in response to which Pyongyang has closed its borders and declared an emergency.

“We assess it was carried out under the North’s anti-coronavirus measure,” the military official told AFP.

The military did not explain how the official ended up in North Korean waters, but Yonhap news agency cited unnamed intelligence sources in Seoul who said he had been attempting to defect to the North.

“Our military strongly condemns such an atrocity, and strongly demands North Korea provide explanations and punish those who are responsible,” General Ahn Young-ho, who is in charge of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a briefing.

The US military commander in South Korea said earlier this month that North Korean troops had been given “shoot-to-kill orders” to prevent the coronavirus entering the country.

In July, a man who had defected to South Korea three years ago triggered a coronavirus scare when he crossed back over the heavily monitored border into North Korea, which has claimed to have zero cases of the disease.

His arrival prompted North Korean officials to lock down a border city and quarantine thousands of people over fears he may have had coronavirus, though the World Health Organisation later said his test results were inconclusive.

Last week, South Korean police arrested a defector who they said had tried to return to North Korea by breaking into a military training site in South Korea’s border town of Cheorwon.