SEOUL, South Korea (UKTN) — Quashing its predecessor’s assessment, South Korea’s new conservative government said Thursday there was no evidence that a South Korean official killed by North Korea near of the disputed maritime border of the rivals in 2020 intended to defect to the North.
The killing of the fisheries official has been a major source of domestic division in South Korea, with conservatives accusing President Moon Jae-in’s liberal government of failing to respond strongly to North Korea in hopes of better relations . About a week after his murder, South Korean officials announced that the man had gambling debts and had swum to resettle in the North.
The release of confidential South Korean documents about the man’s death was a campaign promise by current President Yoon Suk Yeol, who won the March 9 election on the platform of a tougher stance on the North Korean provocations.
On Thursday, Coast Guard and Department of Defense officials told a joint news conference they had found no evidence that the official attempted to voluntarily visit North Korea.
Yoon Hyeong-jin, director of the policy planning division of South Korea’s defense ministry, said it was “regrettable to confuse the public by suspecting that the fisheries official had tried to defect and not to fully disclose related information to the public”.
Senior Coast Guard officer Park Sang-chun said authorities had suspended an investigation into the unidentified North Korean soldier who allegedly killed the official, and planned to release relevant information about the incident.
Yoon’s presidential office said separately on Thursday that it would withdraw the Moon government’s appeal against a court ruling ordering the release of certain government documents about the man’s death.
In September 2020, South Korea accused North Korea of shooting the fisheries official dead before setting his body on fire, apparently in accordance with its strict anti-coronavirus measures. South Korean officials said the 47-year-old disappeared from a government vessel monitoring unauthorized fishing in the area.
Moon’s government initially strongly condemned the North’s action, but its criticism gradually waned after it received a North Korean message it said contained leader Kim Jong Un’s apology on the matter.
According to the North Korean message leaked by South Korea, the North shot the official because he tried to flee after refusing to answer questions and it burned the object he was floating on, not his body.
To resolve some differences, the Moon government proposed a joint investigation, but the North ignored it.
In a parliamentary committee meeting at the time, then-South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook said they believed the official was trying to defect because he let his shoes on the ship, put on a life jacket and boarded a buoyant object. The coast guard later said he swam against adverse currents using a life jacket and flotation device and announced plans to relocate to North Korea.
At Thursday’s briefing, Yoon said, “I can clearly tell you that there is circumstantial evidence that the North Korean military shot and killed one of our nationals and burned his body.”
The statement comes amid heightened animosities over North Korea’s series of missile and other weapons tests this year. South Korean officials also said the North completed preparations for its first nuclear test in about five years.
North Korea did not immediately respond to South Korea’s new assessment of the late official, but its official website Uriminzokkiri on Thursday hurled insults at Yoon, calling him “idiot” and “maniacal. of pro-American flunkeyism” following reports that he suggested an English name for a new Seoul park.
North Korea has a reputation for attacking American, South Korean and foreign leaders with bombastic and derogatory rhetoric.
Yoon offered “a bold plan” to improve North Korea’s economy if it abandons its nuclear program. North Korea has previously rejected similar overtures from some of Yoon’s predecessors that linked plans to support North Korea’s denuclearization.