North Korean soldiers shot and then burned the body of a South Korean official who went missing at sea this week, Seoul confirmed Thursday, demanding those responsible be punished.
General Ahn Young-ho, who is in charge of operations for South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, strongly condemned North Korea's "outrageous act."
"We sternly warn the North that all responsibilities for this incident lie with it," the senior general said.
According to Seoul, the 47-year-old worked for the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries and was last seen Monday aboard a patrol boat with other officials to the south of Yeonpyeong Island, which is west of the South Korean city of Incheon.
He was reported missing after he mysteriously disappeared from the boat, the authorities said on Wednesday. Only his shoes were found in a search.
South Korea dispatched around 20 naval vessels and planes in an attempt to find him.
They now believe he was trying to defect and was floating in a life jacket when found by North Korean soldiers, who put on gas masks and questioned him before opening fire.
After the shooting the soldiers allegedly burned his body, possibly over fears he had COVID-19. The notoriously isolated and secretive hermit kingdom said it had its first suspected infection in July, but later claimed it was negative, according to Radio Free Asia.
South Korea's Coast Guard said defection was possible because the official had complained of debt problems. He also knew the current, was wearing a life jacket, and then there were the shoes left on board.
However, it said his route could not be tracked because two CCTV cameras on the boat were broken.
It is unclear how South Korea came to the conclusion of what happened to the official, though they cited intelligence analysis.
His brother also challenged the government's narrative in an interview with Yonhap News TV, arguing he had no reason to want to defect.
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