North Korea shot, killed, and immediately cremated a South Korean civilian official who went missing earlier this week near the two countries’ disputed western sea border, according to South Korea’s military.
Seoul’s National Defense Ministry said Thursday the man was questioned in North Korean waters, before being shot to death, doused with oil, and set on fire, apparently all on orders from a superior. South Korean officials did not reveal how they knew those details, citing only “diverse intelligence.”
The incident comes amid a quiet moment in inter-Korean relations. Pyongyang earlier this year ramped up tensions with Seoul, but North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June unexpectedly called off that pressure campaign. Since then, North Korea has been focused on domestic issues, such as the coronavirus pandemic and devastating floods.
There are now concerns the killing could again send inter-Korean relations tumbling.
"Our military strongly condemns this brutal act and strongly urges the North to explain this and punish those responsible," Lieutenant General Ahn Young-ho of the South Korean military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff told a press briefing. “We also warn North Korea that all responsibility for this incident lies with it."
North Korea’s military has not responded to Seoul’s request for more information, according to South Korean defense officials. Pyongyang has not publicly commented on the incident.
The unidentified 47-year-old official, who worked for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, disappeared Monday while on duty aboard a patrol boat off the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong. He was reported missing about 10 kilometers south of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto inter-Korean sea border.
The circumstances of the man’s disappearance are not clear. South Korean military officials believe he may have been trying to flee to North Korea, noting his colleagues found only his shoes on the boat. According to the Yonhap news agency, the man was recently divorced and had been struggling with debt.
He wouldn’t be the only recent person to flee from South Korea to the North.
Earlier this week, South Korean police said they arrested a defector who was trying to return to North Korea via a military training site in the border town of Cheorwon.
In July, a 24-year-old man who had fled North Korea swam back into the country, after being accused of rape in South Korea. That incident prompted the North to lock down a border area, ostensibly because of coronavirus concerns.
North Korea has since issued “shoot-to-kill” orders to prevent the coronavirus from entering the country from China, the top U.S. commander in South Korea, General Robert Abrams, said earlier this month.
The coronavirus-related security zones were first reported by the Daily NK, a Seoul-based news website with sources in North Korea. The outlet said the new rules stipulated that anyone "breaking rules or disrupting public order near the border will be shot without warning." The rules apply to all areas of the country, it said.
“North Korea is locked down almost as in a wartime situation to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
The shooting incident is awkwardly timed for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who this week used a video speech at the United Nations General Assembly to call for an end-of-war declaration between North and South Korea.
The left-leaning Moon, who desperately wants to improve ties with Pyongyang before he leaves office in 2022, has been trying to convince the North to return to the dialogue and cooperation that marked the beginning of his five-year term.
In a statement, the presidential Blue House said it “strongly condemns” the killing, which “violated basic international and humanitarian norms.”
North Korea earlier this year cut communications channels with the South and blew up the two countries’ de facto embassy after complaining about South Korean activists who launched balloons filled with anti-Pyongyang propaganda across the border.
That makes it harder to de-escalate during a crisis, analysts warn.
“Now that there is no communications channel between the two Koreas and no dialogue, relations almost couldn’t be worse,” Yang said.
The two Koreas have been in a technical state of war, since their 1950s conflict ended in a truce and not a peace treaty.
Though tensions sporadically break out, deaths - especially involving civilians - are rare. The last time a South Korean civilian was shot dead in North Korea was in 2008, when a North Korean soldier killed a South Korean tourist who had wandered into a restricted area at a mountain resort.
Yeonpyeong island, where the South Korean official was said to have been killed, has been the site of past violence. During a period of heightened tensions in 2010, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong, killing several people.