South Korean marines patrol on the South Korea-controlled island of Yeonpyeong. Photo: AFP / Yonhap

A South Korean official was killed by North Korea on Tuesday off a flashpoint island that lies just off the North Korean coast in the Yellow Sea, Seoul confirmed on Thursday morning.

Though facts around the case remain murky, evidence emerging in South Korea throughout Thursday point to an attempted defection – and a brutal response by North Korean troops employing extreme anti-Covid-19 measures.

The 47-year old man, identified as an official with Seoul’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, went missing from a 500-ton South Korean vessel south of the island of Yeonpyeong, close to the North Korean coast, in the morning on Monday, September 21, multiple TV news programs and wire services reported on Thursday morning.

The official, who remains unnamed, left behind his shoes and was wearing a life jacket, the reports said. He was intercepted on Tuesday by seaborne North Korean troops in North Korean waters, shot dead in the water and his remains burned using oil.

The light of the fire was monitored by South Korean forces on Tuesday evening, according to a televised Ministry of National Defense Ministry briefing held on Thursday morning in Seoul. 

“North Korea found the man in its waters and committed an act of brutality by shooting at him and burning his body, according to our military’s thorough analysis of diverse intelligence,” the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry said the man appeared to have been questioned on a North Korean vessel before being executed and cremated.

“North Korea is fully responsible,” Ministry of Defense spokesman Ahn Yong-ho said in a televised press briefing. “We urge North Korea to communicate with us.”

The presidential National Security Council convened at midday on Thursday to discuss the matter.

Following the NSC meeting, President Moon Jae-in called the incident “shocking” while the Unification Ministry characterized it as “an inhuman act that cannot be tolerated for any reason.”

Seoul said it had sent a message to the North via the US -led United Nations Command regarding the incident but had received no response.

Mysterious circumstances

It’s unknown how the official might have fallen overboard, if that’s what happened – or, given that he left his shoes and was wearing a life jacket, whether instead of falling, he perhaps was attempting to defect.

While South Korean defections to the North are rare – most traffic is in the other direction – they do happen. Often, South Korean defectors are persons facing personal problems, familial, financial or other.

Late breaking news reports in South Korea on Thursday stated that the man, who remains un-named, had financial problems and had recently divorced.

Still, the incident is highly unusual.

“It is very difficult to understand as our information is limited,” said Choi Jin-wook, a Seoul-based North Korea expert who was formerly head of research at the Korea Institute of National Unification. “Whether he was a defector or was on a mission – I don’t know.”

The exact circumstances of the alleged shooting and burning are also unclear. Choi wondered if the man was, indeed, a fisheries ministry official or had a different real job description.

Choi especially raised questions over the cremation. “The strangest thing is they killed him and burned him – and burning … is something they use to hide things,” Choi said. “There are a lot of strange things to check.”

Covid-19 and ‘shoot to kill’ orders

There is speculation that the man was shot and his body burned as a measure against possible Covid-19 infection. North Korea has completely closed its borders since the pandemic first hit China. Certainly, the country is taking Covid-19 extremely seriously. Anecdotal evidence suggests the border closure has caused enormous economic damage.

In July, a North Korean defector to the South re-defected to the North. The man, according to North Korean state media, was infected with Covid-19, necessitating a lockdown of the city of Kaesong, close to the South Korean border.

And earlier this month, General Robert Abrams, who commands US troops in South Korea, told the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies that North Korea has deployed elite special operations units to the China border with orders to shoot any illegal border crossers.

In recent years, the northern border has been porous, with defectors, smugglers and cross-border businesspersons bribing border guards.  

But there also exists the possibility that North Korea cremated the cadaver to hide a “shoot to kill” policy in senstive areas – and the NLL is certainly a sensitive area – that would have meant multiple bullet impacts in the corpse.

The last time a South Korean civilian was hit with North Korean gunfire was in 2008. That year, a female tourist was shot dead at the South Korea-run tourism resort at North Korea’s Mount Kumgang. She had apparently wandered into a restricted area.

Asia Times has learned that the woman was shot not just once but multiple times. That very likely made it out of the question for North Korean authorities to agree to a joint investigation, as the South demanded.

As a result, the multi-billion dollar, Hyundai-run tourism resort – a cash cow for North Korea – was shuttered to South Korean tourists. Its long-term future remains in doubt.

‘A good place to create trouble’

The island – and the waters – where Monday’s incident happened are dangerous for multiple reasons.  

The South Korean-administered Yeonpyeong Island, which has a population of around 1,300, is just seven square kilometers in size. Situated amid rich Yellow Sea crab-fishing grounds, it lies just 12 kilometers from the coast of North Korea, making it far closer to North Korea than to the mainland South.

Not only have there been violent and deadly incidents in the area between South Korean coast guard forces and Chinese fishermen in the past, the island is also in disputed waters.  

Yeonpyeong and a group of nearby islands that lie south of the 38th parallel – the line with which the two Koreans were divided in 1945 – were granted to South Korea under the terms of the 1953 armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.  The northernmost of the group of islands, Baengnyeong, is closer to Pyongyang than to Seoul.

Making the islands doubly sensitive for North Korea is that they were used as jumping off points for special operations units during the 1950-53 war. Today they are heavily garrisoned by crack South Korean marines.

While the territorial Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, was established with the agreement of both sides in 1953, its maritime version, the “Northern Limit Line” or NLL was not. It was unilaterally imposed by the US-led United Nations Command, which had naval supremacy. The frontline islands lie – just barely – on the South Korean side of the NLL.  

 “The NLL is not defined by the armistice so it is a good place to create trouble. Units can say, ‘We did not violate the armistice,’” said Steve Tharp, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel who conducts tours of the DMZ. “Just because of where they are, those islands are sensitive, they are out on a limb.”

 In the 1990s North Korea naval units began contesting the NLL, leading to a series of deadly North-South patrol boat clashes in the area.

Matters escalated on March 26, 2010, when a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, was sunk off Baengnyeong Island with the loss of 46 sailors. Seoul insists the Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo from a North Korean mini-submarine. Pyongyang denies the accusation.

There was no opacity about a North Korean attack on Yeonpyeong Island later that year.

Photo taken on November 23, 2010, shows a South Korean K9 Thunder 155mm Self-Propelled Howitzer and soldier as fire rages caused by shelling from North Korea on Yeonpyeong island in the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea. Photo: AFP / HO / Defense Ministry

On November 23, 2010, after South Korean marines on the island conducted a live-fire artillery drill, shooting into the sea, North Korean forces shelled the island with shore-based rocket and artillery units. Two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed.

It’s grimly ironic that the details of the latest deadly incident off Yeonpyeong were made public one day after South Korean President Moon made a plea at the UN General Assembly for a formal end to the Korean War.