South Korea says a government official slain by North Korean sailors wanted to defect, even as his brother rejected the claim as “fiction” and appealed to Pyongyang to return his body.
Seoul on Tuesday concluded the man, who had gambling debts, swam against unfavourable currents with the help of a life jacket and a floatation device, indicating that he intended to resettle in North Korea.
It is unclear whether the announcement will soothe mounting tensions between the two nations over the man’s death last week, which prompted a rare apology from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The official, who has not been named, was on board a government inspection ship when he disappeared on September 21 and was killed by North Korean troops the following day.
Senior South Korean coastguard officer Yoon Seong-hyun on Tuesday said at a televised briefing that there was a “very low possibility” that the man could have fallen from a ship or tried to take his own life because he was wearing a life jacket when he was found in North Korean waters.
Yoon also said tidal currents at the time would make it extremely difficult for the man to drift into North Korean waters naturally.
He also said the man had expressed his wish to defect before his death, citing intelligence showing North Korean officials knew the man’s name, age, height and hometown as evidence of his communication with them.
Yoon did not elaborate. But some experts said he was likely referring to South Korea’s interception of communications among North Korean officials about the man.
Coastguard officials have previously said the 47-year-old official was a father of two with some debts. Yoon said the debts amounted to about 330 million won ($282,240), 80 percent of which were from gambling.
The coastguard said its assessment was based on an analysis of tidal currents in the area, a visit to the government boat the official had been on before his disappearance, investigation of his financial transactions and a meeting with South Korean Ministry of Defense officials.
‘Unexpected and disgraceful’
Meanwhile, the official’s elder brother Lee Rae-jin accused the South Korean government of framing him with an ungrounded accusation of attempting to defect after failing to rescue him.
Lee told reporters on Tuesday his brother was proud of his job as a public servant and never told him about a desire to defect.
“The government is hastily framing my brother with a North Korea defection,” Lee said, accusing Seoul of losing “golden time” and making little efforts to retrieve his brother’s remains.
Lee said he “desperately” wants to retrieve his brother’s body and asked for cooperation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “I’d like to ask Kim Jong Un why he killed my brother,” he added.
Lee said his brother likely fell into the sea by accident. South Korea has accused North Korea of having fatally shot him and burning his body.
North Korea acknowledged its troops killed the official because he refused to answer their questions and attempted to flee. It said its troops only burned the man’s floatation device.
Kim offered a rare apology over the man’s death after what he described as the “unexpected and disgraceful” killing of the official, but his government has not confirmed the man was trying to defect.
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.
South Korea has demanded a joint probe with the North on the shooting. Pyongyang has not yet responded to the request and on Sunday said it would begin its own search for the body.
The man’s shooting has triggered a huge political firestorm in South Korea, with conservatives launching fierce attacks on liberal President Moon Jae-in, who espouses greater ties with the North.