South Korean man killed by North Korean sailors was trying to defect, says Seoul

29 September 2020, 10:34

South Korea Koreas Missing Official
South Korea Koreas Missing Official. Picture: PA

The victim’s brother dismissed the assessment as ‘fiction’.

South Korea has said a government official killed by North Korean sailors wanted to defect, concluding that the man, who had gambling debts, had conveyed his intention of resettling in the North.

It is unclear whether the announcement will soothe mounting questions about the man’s death last week. The official’s brother dismissed the assessment as “fiction”, accusing the government of inventing a defection attempt after failing to rescue him.

Senior coastguard officer Yoon Seong-hyun said at a televised briefing on Tuesday that there was a “very low possibility” that the man could have fallen from a ship or tried to kill himself, because he was putting on a life jacket when he was found in North Korean waters.

Mr Yoon said tidal currents at the time would have made it extremely difficult for him to drift into North Korean waters naturally.

South Korean boats patrol near Yeonpyeong island
South Korean boats patrol near Yeonpyeong island (Kim Do-hoon/Yonhap/AP)

He also said the man conveyed his wish to defect before his death. He cited intelligence showing North Korea knew the man’s name, age, height and home town as an evidence of his communication with the North.

Coastguard officials have previously said the 47-year-old official was a father of two with some debts. Mr Yoon said the debts totalled about 330 million won (£220,000), 80% of which was from gambling.

The official had been aboard a government inspection ship before he disappeared on September 21 and was killed by North Korean troops the following day.

The coastguard said its assessment was based on an analysis of tidal currents in the area, a visit to a government boat the official had been aboard before his disappearance, investigation of his financial transactions and a meeting with South Korean Defence Ministry officials.

The man’s elder brother, Lee Rae-jin, told reporters on Tuesday that his sibling was proud of his job as a public servant and never told him about a desire to defect.

Lee Rae-jin
Lee Rae-jin (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

“The government is hastily framing my brother with a North Korea defection,” Mr Lee said. He accused the government of losing “golden time” and making little effort to salvage his brother.

He said he “desperately” wants to retrieve his brother’s body and asked for co-operation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but he added: “I’d like to ask Kim Jong Un why he killed my brother.”

Mr Lee has said his brother is likely to have fallen into the sea by accident.

A South Korean defecting to North Korea is highly unusual, though more than 33,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea for political and economic reasons in the past 20 years.

Seoul has accused Pyongyang of having shot him and burned his body. North Korea acknowledged that its troops killed him because he refused to answer to questions and attempted to flee, but said troops only burned the man’s floatation device.

Mr Kim offered a rare apology over the man’s death, but his government has not confirmed the man was trying to defect.

The man’s shooting has triggered a huge political storm in South Korea, with conservatives launching fierce attacks on liberal President Moon Jae-in, who espouses greater ties with the North.

By Press Association