North Korea has apologized for the “unexpected” and “unfortunate” murder of a South Korean official who crossed the maritime border separating South Korea from its communist neighbor.
The official, who remains unnamed, is described as a 47-year-old who worked for South Korea’s oceans and fisheries ministry. He went missing from a government vessel on Monday while investigating claims of unauthorized fishing near Yeonpyeong island, south of the maritime border.
Kim Jong Un dispatched a message to his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, to state that he was “very sorry” over the incident, adding that it “should not have happened.”
According to South Korean media reports, the message said that the official was killed as part of North Korea’s strict measures to prevent the entry of the coronavirus into the country, which has remained tight-lipped about the extent of the pandemic.
In his apology, Kim said that he hoped the incident would not affect ties between the two countries, which have begun to thaw as North Korea restrained itself from performing any long-range missile tests following diplomatic efforts by President Donald Trump. South Korea’s president has called for an official end to the Korean War, which saw combat end with an armistice in 1953, but no peace treaty.
It is unusual for the North Korean leader to publicly apologize on any issue, which comes after Seoul’s leadership condemned the official’s death as an “atrocity” and demanded repercussions for those responsible.
According to the North Korean account, troops on a patrol boat near the maritime border initially fired blanks at the official who failed to explain what he was doing in North Korean waters. When he attempted to flee, they fired live rounds, killing him.
North Korea claims that it set fire to “material” the man used to stay afloat in accordance with anti-coronavirus measures but did not burn the victim, claiming simply that his body disappeared in the water.
According to The Guardian, the North Korean report contradicts a South Korean military official’s allegations that the soldiers questioned the man, who was wearing a life jacket, for several hours while he was still in the water. The soldiers wore protective clothing and gas masks.
Speculation has abounded that the man was attempting to defect, but experts are skeptical of the possibility. More than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea over the past two decades. Defections from South Korea are close to nonexistent.
“A public servant defecting to North Korea? I think it sounds a bit strange as he has stable job security,” said Choi Kang, vice-president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, reported The Guardian. “Why did North Korea shoot a man defecting to the North voluntarily?”
The North Korean soldiers were more than likely on high alert over fears that the man was carrying the coronavirus and killed him for that reason. US Forces Korea commander, Robert Abrams, said the North Korean regime issued shoot-to-kill orders to prevent the coronavirus entering the country from China, to create a “buffer zone” in the border.