September 25, 2020 11:00
North Korea shot dead an unarmed South Korean official who was drifting at sea on Tuesday and incinerated his body in an act of deranged brutality that has shocked South Korea.
The Defense Ministry here on Thursday belatedly condemned the violence and demanded an explanation and punishment of those responsible. "We also sternly warn North Korea that all responsibilities for this incident lie with it," it added in a statement.
Cheong Wa Dae also belatedly condemned the murder. "Shooting our citizen, who had no weapon and no intention to resist, to death and damaging his body cannot be justified for any reason," said Cheong Wa Dae security official Suh Choo-suk. "North Korea should apologize for the inhumane act and take clear action to prevent any recurrence of such an incident."
But both the ministry and Cheong Wa Dae were briefed about the incident at the time and kept it quiet. President Moon Jae-in the following day pushed ahead with a speech to a virtual UN General Assembly session urging a peace treaty with North Korea to end the Korean War.
The official, who worked on a patrol ship for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, disappeared from the 499-ton vessel Monday while on duty in waters off the western border island of Yeonpyeong.
A military source here said, "We obtained information that a North Korean maritime office ship discovered the official in waters off South Hwanghae Province at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday."
At the time, the South Korean military did not know exactly where the South Korean was found, but it confirmed within the hour through various intelligence channels he was the missing official.
The North Koreans shot the official dead, doused him in fuel and burned the body at 10 p.m. By that time South Korean authorities had been aware of the civil servant's whereabouts and North Korea's movements for six hours and 30 minutes, but they took no steps to intervene. The Defense Ministry claimed its hands were tied because the official was "outside our territory."
The North Korean regime has apparently issued shoot-to-kill orders to troops for any human or animal approaching within 1 km of its borders because it is in a blind panic about coronavirus infections.
Moon was first briefed about the missing official at 6:36 p.m. on Tuesday, which left him ample time to try and intervene. He was then briefed about the killing at 8:30 a.m. the following morning, which again gave him ample time to cancel or modify his UN speech.
But the South Korean public was not told about the killing until 11 a.m. on Thursday, 26 hours and 30 minutes after it happened.
The military and government did not respond to repeated queries from the media when the official was first reported missing. Besides the two condemnations from fairly low-ranking officials, the government here took no further steps. Some government officials even tried to make excuses for the killing, claiming it does not violate inter-Korean agreements seeking to ease military tensions along the border.
The military now claims the official tried to "defect to the North" by crossing the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border. "Based on analysis of the information, there is a strong chance that the individual attempted to defect to the North, considering the fact that he was wearing a life jacket, left his shoes behind and used an inflatable buoy," a spokesman said.
But neighbors and family on Yeonpyeong Island, where the official lived, say that seems unlikely. His brother told the Chosun Ilbo, "I was not informed by the military of my brother's death until Thursday and learned about it from the news. The military was searching in the wrong place while my brother was lost at sea and only accused him of trying to defect after North Korea shot and killed him."
"This brutal act occurred because our government failed to live up to its responsibility to protect its citizens," the brother added.
He resolutely denied that his brother wanted to defect. Asked about claims that the official was heavily in debt, he said, "Doesn't everyone have financial responsibilities to take care of their children and pay for their homes? That doesn't explain why he would want to defect."
Islanders said defecting to the North by swimming is unthinkable in that part of the West Sea.
Maritime police said they were unable to track the civil servant's movements because surveillance cameras on the ship that carried him were broken since last week.
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