A South Korean government official has been killed and his body burned by North Korean troops, after they found him on a floating object in water near the disputed sea boundary, Seoul’s defence ministry has said.
The man, who was affiliated with the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, disappeared from a patrol boat near the border and was found in North Korea’s waters a day later.
North Korean soldiers shot him, poured petrol on his body and set it alight, the ministry said, citing intelligence gathered by surveillance equipment and other assets. It was unclear what caused his death and whether he died after being shot.
South Korean officials, condemning the “brutal act”, said North Korea may have determined to kill the man in line with strict anti-coronavirus rules that involved opening fire on anyone who crosses the border illegally.
North Korea claims it is free of coronavirus and there has not been a single case of the infection on its territory, which many experts have disputed.
South Korea sent a message to North Korea through a communication channel at the UN Command in South Korea on Wednesday to ask about the missing official, but received no response, said the defence ministry.
Suh Choo-suk, deputy director of the national security office, said in a statement on Thursday that North Korea should reveal the events that led to the “inhumane act” and reiterated calls from the defence ministry to punish those responsible for it, reported South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
Mr Such added the death and damage done to the man’s body cannot be justified for any reason.
The defence ministry added in a statement: “We also sternly warn North Korea that all responsibilities for this incident lie with it.”
Little else is known about the man, who was among 18 officials aboard the patrol boat belonging to the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries on Monday.
After he disappeared, colleagues searched the vessel for him but found only his shoes on board. Days of searches involving aircraft and vessels came up empty-handed, according to the defence and oceans ministries.
The incident marks the first time since July 2008 that a South Korean has been shot dead in North Korea. Park Wang-ja was shot and killed at the North Korean mountain resort of Kumgang after he inadvertently wandered into a restricted zone.
North-South relations are expected to sour further as a result of the killing. Ties have already been strained between the two countries, whose exchange and cooperation programmes have nearly all been suspended amid a deadlock in broader nuclear diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington.
In June, North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office on its territory in protest against South Korean civilians sending anti-North leaflets across the border.