A South Korean government official attempting to defect to North Korea was shot dead this week by troops from the North, who later set the South Korean’s body alight for fear he may be carrying COVID-19. South Korea’s military on Thursday condemned the killing and are vehemently demanding punishment for those North Korean troops responsible. The South Korean military later confirmed reports that a fisheries official, after apparently attempting to defect across the maritime, was shot dead.
The defence ministry, in a statement released via the state-run Yonhap News Agency, said that “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.” South Korean President Moon Jae-in labelled the killing “a stunning and deeply regrettable act that cannot be tolerated,” with the South’s defence ministry labelling the incident “atrocious,” while demanding that the North punish those responsible for the brutal killing. “Our military strongly condemns such a brutal act and strongly urges the North to provide an explanation,” the ministry continued.
The precise reason why North Korean troops murdered the official from the South’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and set his body alight remains unclear. However, the Yonhap News Agency reports that the troops may have been acting in accordance with anti-coronavirus orders. Earlier this month, the United States military commander in South Korea Gen. Robert Abrams, said that the North Korean military are operating under ‘shoot-to-kill orders,’ in order to prevent COVID-19 from entering the country. If North Korean officials confirm the killing of the official, it will mark the first time in twelve years that the North has killed a citizen of the South. This episode of remarkable brutality threatens to further strain diplomatic relations between the North and South.
In June, the North blew up an inter-Korean liaison office, which was co-run with the South, whilst simultaneously mobilising troops on the North-South border. Despite the bellicosity of the North, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been making overtures of engagement with the North, offering humanitarian aid and assistance, coupled with a call to sign a declaration of peace with the North – the Korean Peninsula has technically been in a state of war since 1953. Pyongyang however has roundly rejected President Moon’s overture and shunned foreign assistance. The killing of the unnamed 47 year old official, body-bags prospects of co-operation on the Korean Peninsula. The brutal murder “will delay the next engagement with North Korea,” said Kim Chun-sig, a former senior official from the South who formerly oversaw the South’s North Korea policies.
In recent weeks, Kim-Jong-Un has been besieged by internal challenges presented by a faltering economy, the scourge of COVID-19 and extensive flood damage to bread-basket regions of the Hermit Kingdom. The North, consequently, has displayed little interest in defibrillating nuclear talks with the Trump Administration, and even less interest in dialogue with its neighbour across the 38th parallel despite President Moon’s fervent attempts at rekindling inter-Korean projects. The brutal killing of the South Korean official will certainly threaten to extinguish hopes, which were already dim, of a peaceful resolution to tensions on the Korean Peninsula – one of the great flashpoints of our time.