North Korean soldiers shot dead a suspected South Korean defector at sea and burned his body as a COVID-19 precaution after he was interrogated in the water over several hours, Seoul military officials said yesterday.
It is the first killing of a South Korean citizen by North Korean forces for a decade, and comes with Pyongyang at high alert over the COVID-19 pandemic and inter-Korean relations at a standstill.
The fisheries official disappeared from a patrol vessel near the western border island of Yeonpyeong on Monday, the official said.
More than 24 hours later, North Korean forces located him in their waters and questioned him from a patrol boat, the official said, with Yonhap news agency adding that his interrogator wore protective equipment.
He was killed about six hours after being found, the official said.
“He was shot dead in the water,” he said. “North Korean soldiers poured oil over his body and burnt it in the water.”
“We assess it was carried out under the North’s anti-COVID-19 measure,” he added.
Pyongyang has closed its borders and declared an emergency to try to protect itself against the virus which first emerged in neighboring China.
The man was wearing a life jacket and his shoes had been found on board the South Korean boat, the official said — indicators pointing to the man entering the water voluntarily.
“We have obtained intelligence that he had expressed his intention to defect while being questioned,” the official added, but declined to go into detail about the source of the information.
The South Korean military is known to intercept radio communications by the North’s forces.
The killing took place after an “order from superior authority,” Yonhap cited South Korean officials as saying.
The South Korean Ministry of National Defense condemned the shooting as an “outrageous act.”
“We sternly warn North Korea that all responsibilities for this incident lie with it,” the ministry said in a statement.
Isolated North Korea — whose crumbling healthcare system would struggle to cope with a major COVID-19 outbreak — has not confirmed a single case of the disease that has swept the world.
Pyongyang in January closed its border with China to prevent contamination, and in July state media said that it had raised its state of emergency to the maximum level.
North Korean officials in the same month put the border city of Kaesong under lockdown after a defector who had fled to the South three years ago sneaked back over the heavily fortified border, amid fears that he might have carried the virus.
US Forces Korea Commander Robert Abrams said earlier this month that North Korean authorities had issued shoot-to-kill orders to prevent COVID-19 entering the country from China, creating a “buffer zone” at the border.
This week’s shooting is the first time in 10 years that North Korean forces have killed a South Korean.
In November 2010, Pyongyang’s military bombarded Yeonpyeong island — close to this week’s incident — killing two civilians and two marines. It came months after a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine sank South Korea’s Cheonan warship, killing 46 crew, although Pyongyang denies responsibility.
In 2008, a North Korean soldier gunned down a female South Korean tourist who walked into a forbidden area at the North’s Mount Kumgang resort, prompting Seoul to suspend the highly profitable visits.
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