SEOUL, South Korea—South Korea said on Sept. 24 that North Korean troops shot a South Korean government official and set his body on fire after they found him on a floating object in waters near the rivals’ disputed sea boundary.
According to Seoul’s announcement, the man disappeared from a government ship that was checking on potential unauthorized fishing in an area south of the boundary on Sept. 21, a day before he was found in North Korean waters.
North Korea sent officials wearing gas masks aboard a boat near the man to learn why he was there on Sept. 22. Later in the day, a North Korean navy boat came and opened fire at him, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said.
Sailors from the boat, putting on gas masks and protective suits, poured gasoline on his body and set it aflame, the Defense Ministry said, citing intelligence gathered by surveillance equipment and other assets. The ministry said it wasn’t clear what caused his death and whether he died after being shot.
It was also unclear how or why he ended up in the North.
The U.S. military commander in South Korea said this month that North Korean troops had been given “shoot-to-kill orders” to prevent the coronavirus entering the country.
North Korea may have determined to kill him in line with its stringent anti-coronavirus rules.
Such strict enforcement of those orders may be an attempt to prevent an outbreak from disrupting a major military parade expected to be held on Oct. 10 when the country commemorates the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, said Chad O’Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.
“In many ways, this parade is a huge potential viral risk,” he said in a post on Twitter. “And it seems paranoia about that risk is at play [with] shoot-to-kill rules.”
North Korea has steadfastly said there hasn’t been a single virus case on its territory, a claim widely disputed by many foreign experts. Observers say a pandemic could cause devastating consequences in North Korea because of its broken public health care system and a chronic shortage of medical supplies.
South Korea sent a message to North Korea via a communication channel at the U.S.-led U.N. Command in South Korea on Sept. 23 to ask about the missing official. But North Korea hasn’t responded, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry.
Senior military officer Ahn Young Ho told reporters that South Korea strongly condemned North Korea’s “atrocious act” and urged it to punish those responsible. He said South Korea had intelligence that could be used to hold North Korea responsible for the man’s death.
Little is known about the the 47-year-old man, except that he was among 18 officials aboard the government boat belonging to the Oceans and Fisheries Ministry on Sept. 21. When his colleagues searched for him after his disappearance, they only found his shoes left on the ship. Days of search involving aircraft and vessels came up emptyhanded, according to the defense and oceans ministries.
By Hyung-Jin Kim. Reuters contributed to this report.