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South, North give different accounts over killing of South Korean official

Suh Hoon,<strong></strong> director of the National Security Office, announces Pyongyang's notice of apology to South Korea regarding the killing of its official in the North's waters during a press briefing at Cheong Wa Dae, Friday. / Yonhap
Suh Hoon, director of the National Security Office, announces Pyongyang's notice of apology to South Korea regarding the killing of its official in the North's waters during a press briefing at Cheong Wa Dae, Friday. / Yonhap

By Park Han-sol

Controversy has risen over the huge differences between Seoul's and Pyongyang's accounts regarding a South Korean maritime official's disappearance, his alleged attempt to defect to the North and his death.

If North Korea's account is correct, the intelligence capabilities of South Korea could be called into question.

South Korean authorities have said the 47-year-old official surnamed Lee went missing at 11:30 a.m., Monday, while on duty on a patrol ship off the west coast, and was found by North Korean military personnel in the sea off Yeonpyeong Island near the maritime border at around 3:30 p.m., Tuesday.

According to the South Korean version of the story, Lee was on an unidentified floating item and expressed his willingness to defect to the North Koreans, who questioned him from a distance while leaving him in the water. About six hours later, the North Koreans shot him to death, then doused the body with oil and burned it.

Pyongyang's account, however, differed in many crucial parts of the story.

In a notice it sent to the South, Friday, the North said an "unidentified man" who illegally intruded into its territorial waters on a floating item failed to properly respond to their verbal security checks when he was about 80 meters away. Approaching the man, the North Koreans shot two blanks, and he was seen as attempting to flee. They then fired more than 10 gunshots at a distance of 40 to 50 meters as allowed under the related rules of maritime border security.

When they approached for closer inspection, they were unable to find any trace of the body other than a large pool of blood, which led them to believe he had died from bullet wounds and sunk into the water. They subsequently set the floating item ― not the body ― on fire following the quarantine rules, according to the North's account.

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According to the notice, Lee did not express his willingness to defect.

The North continued to express regret that South Korea's military authorities have chosen "profane and confrontational language" to describe its act as "brutality," simply based on wild speculation without asking for its account of a "crackdown on an illegal intruder."

Pyongyang's notice did not provide a detailed timeline of the finding and killing of Lee.

Suh Hoon, South Korea's national security adviser, said in a Friday briefing that the government would continue investigating the differences in the two Koreas' accounts.

Suh Hoon, director of the National Security Office, announces Pyongyang's notice of apology to South Korea regarding the killing of its official in the North's waters during a press briefing at Cheong Wa Dae, Friday. / Yonhap
Mugunghwa No. 10, a patrol ship boarded by the South Korean official who went missing on Monday and was shot dead by North Koreans the next day / Yonhap

One of Lee's family members has also claimed he had no reason to defect to the North.

In an interview with a local news media outlet, Friday, his brother, Lee Rae-jin, said that if his brother had any intention to defect, it does not make sense that he left his public official ID card, a trustworthy form of identification to the North Korean military, back on the ship. He also pointed out the direction of the ocean current at the time his brother went missing would have taken him to Ganghwa Island off the west coast, not into North Korean territory.

Instead, he raised the possibility of the incident being a simple accident, citing his brother's unfamiliarity with the work environment after he transferred from another patrol ship only four days earlier.

He also said the South Korean military is framing his brother to avoid its responsibility for failing to locate a missing person for more than 24 hours in South Korean waters.

Residents of Yeonpyeong Island near where the official went missing also noted the bizarre nature of the incident and doubted the possibility of defection.

"He wasn't equipped with high-tech equipment that would have helped him swim across and it is nearly impossible to travel almost 40 kilometers purely with a life vest and a flotation device, even for a professional swimmer," one fisherman in his 50s said during an interview with a news outlet.

The maritime officers have launched an investigation into the civil servant's bank accounts, insurance coverage and call history, according to the Incheon Coast Guard, Friday. Based on the testimonies regarding his financial difficulties, the coast guard is investigating for any possible connections between his debt situation and his alleged attempt to defect to the North.



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