SEOUL— South Korea's Ministry of Defense officially acknowledged on Tuesday the killing of a South Korean citizen as he was trying to cross a river to North Korea, apparently to defect.
South Korean border guards Monday afternoon saw the man moving along the Imjin River toward the North Korean border with the aid of a flotation device. Defense officials say that although he was dressed in civilian clothes, soldiers could not identify him. He also allegedly ignored repeated warnings to stop and turn around.
Some 30 South Korean soldiers then fired hundreds of bullets at the man before he was confirmed dead.
Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok says the use of deadly force was justified because of the military sensitivity of the heavily armed border. Min-seok said the border is so sensitive because South Korea and North Korea are still under a cease-fire agreement from 1953, and therefore when a person violates the regulation the military is allowed to shoot. He says the commander warned the man to stop because he could have been a civilian, a spy or an armed North Korean. However, despite the commands, the man did not comply. Therefore, the commander made the judgment call to shoot the man, in accordance with regulations.
The man was later found to be unarmed and identified as 47-year-old Nam Yong-ho by the South Korean passport he was carrying. It also showed he had been expelled from Japan earlier this year after being denied an application for political asylum.
It is not clear why Nam sought refuge in Japan or North Korea. South Korean officials say they are still investigating the matter.
A defection by a South Korean to North Korea is extremely rare, and there are no previous incidents of shooting such attempted deserters in recent records.
The last South Korean to seek asylum in the North did so in 2009, when a pig farmer wanted by police for assault cut a hole in a border fence and escaped to avoid prosecution.
The vast majority of desertions are from the North to the South. Official figures say about 25,000 North Koreans have fled since the end of Korean War fighting in 1953.
Almost all North Korea defectors go through China or, more rarely, by sea, because the land border between the Koreas is too dangerous.
South Korea's Vice Minister for National Defense, Baek Seung-joo, emphasized that point Tuesday at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club, saying the alert status of the demilitarized zone where South Korea and North Korea stand face to face is completely different from the status of borders of other countries. He says they monitor people who come in or go out 24 hours a day. If someone attempts to cross the border, the military will send a clear message to that person to stop and come back, he says. If that doesn’t work, then the military will take action.
The two Koreas are technically still at war, and their fenced, four-kilometer (2.5 mile) wide buffer is riddled with landmines. There are also tens of thousands of war-ready soldiers with heavy artillery on each side.
Reports on Monday say the daughter of a senior North Korean policeman left China, where she was studying, for asylum in South Korea.
The French news agency, AFP, and Korea's Yonhap Television News quoted rights activists as saying the 19-year-old's father is a Ministry of Public Security official responsible for the capital, Pyongyang.
South Korea's Unification Ministry, following procedure, would not confirm the reports. North Korea's state media had no immediate comment.
VOA Seoul bureau producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.