In a highly unusual move, North Korea today expressed regret over the death of the man, insisted he was shot as part of measures to battle the coronavirus, the South’s national security adviser said. North Korea‘s United Front Department, which is in charge of cross-border ties, sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in‘s office a day after Seoul officials confirmed the man had been killed.
The message came as Moon faced intense political fallout over the incident, which coincided with a renewed push for policy to engage with Pyongyang.
The letter specifically referred to Supreme leader Kim Jong-un, saying he was “sorry” the incident disappointed the South Korean public and should not have happened, Moon’s security adviser Suh Hoon said.
Kim further referred to Tuesday’s incident as “unexpected” and “unfortunate”, Suh said.
The soldiers fired more than 10 shots at the man, a South Korean fisheries official who went missing this week after he was found in their waters, refused to reveal his identity and attempted to flee, Suh said, citing the letter.
He is believed to have jumped from a boat in an attempt to defect to the North.
However, the letter also insisted the soldiers had actually burned a flotation device he was using, according to their anti-virus manuals, and not his body.
A further statement issued by the South Korean government added: “Our military strongly condemns such a brutal act and strongly urges the North to provide an explanation and punish those responsible.
“We also sternly warn North Korea that all responsibilities for this incident lie with it.”
An official from South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said surveillance equipment on the island of Yeonpyeong, located on the South Korean side of the maritime border, had detected flames thought to be caused by the burning of the man’s body.
He added: “At around 9:40pm, the North Korean soldiers aboard their vessel shot him before pouring oil over his body and setting it aflame at around 10pm.
“We judge that North Korea appears to have done such acts against humanity of unconditionally shooting an individual as part of its COVID-19 quarantine guidelines.”
Officially North Korea has no confirmed cases of COVID-19.
However, its 880-mile border with China has been closed since January, and US Forces Korea (USFK) commander Robert Abrams earlier this month said a two-kilometre buffer zone is currently in force to prevent civilians approaching it.
He added: “They’ve got North Korean SOF (Special Operations Forces) out there. Strike forces, they’ve got shoot-to-kill orders in place.”
A resident of the country’s Hamgyong province told the US backed Radio Free Asia website they had been told the policy “will be in effect along the entire North Korea-China border until the coronavirus pandemic ends”.
The unnamed source added: “Police in the city of Hoeryong issued an emergency notice from the Ministry of Social Security, saying they would kill anyone within a kilometre of the North Korea-China border regardless of their reason for being there.”