Yonhap | By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Oct. 7 (Yonhap) — Military tensions are continuing between the two Koreas over North Korea’s killing of a South Korean fisheries official, as Pyongyang issued threats over Seoul’s search operations without responding to calls for a joint probe, Seoul’s Defense Minister Suh Wook said Wednesday.
On Sept. 22, the 47-year-old fisheries official was fatally shot by the North Korean military while being adrift in North Korean waters, according to the South Korean military. He went missing the previous day while on duty near the Yellow Sea border island of Yeonpyeong.
“Regarding the incident, North Korea expressed an apology and vowed to take steps to prevent recurrences, but it has not responded to our call for a joint investigation and made threats against our normal search operations under way in our waters,” Suh said during a parliamentary audit of the ministry.
The communist country warned the South on Sept. 27 not to intrude into its waters in the search for the body of the official. Pyongyang has long disputed the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto inter-Korean maritime boundary, turning the front-line waters into a major flashpoint of the peninsula.
Suh made it clear that all responsibilities regarding the incident lie with North Korea, stressing the need for a joint probe, as the North’s explanations differ from Seoul’s assessment in key parts. The South Korean military said the North is presumed to have incinerated the official’s body, but the North claimed that what it set on fire was not his body but a floating material he used.
“We are analyzing those differences,” Suh said. “As of now, however, we stick with our analysis.”
North Korea’s apology over the incident was an indication that the regime attempted to “manage the situation” to avoid turning public opinion in the South against it, the ministry noted. The rare apology by leader Kim Jong-un in a message from the North’s United Front Department was unusually quick, coming only a day after South Korea demanded it.
“Since the incident, no unusual movements by the North Korean military have been detected,” the ministry said. “It has made all-out efforts for recovery work from damage by recent heavy rains and typhoons to wrap it up before the founding anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party that falls on Oct. 10.”
As for concerns raised by a lawmaker over the disclosure of classified military information acquired by South Korean and U.S. assets regarding the incident, Minister Suh said that U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) Commander Gen. Robert Abrams “voiced some concerns” about the excessive exposure.
The communist country remains mum on the South’s call for a joint investigation into the case and the restoration of the inter-Korean military hotlines that the North severed in June in anger over anti-Pyongyang leaflets sent across the border by activists here.
As for criticism that the military failed to swiftly seek North Korea’s cooperation in searching for the official on the day he went missing, the defense minister said that he was briefed that the chances were slim of him drifting into North Korean waters.
“We did not expect him to cross into the North Korean side on the first day and did not check communication lines with North Korea,” Suh said, adding that he learned later through the analysis of intelligence that the official ended up in North Korean waters.
The military and the Coast Guard said that the official was presumed to have jumped into the sea in a suspected attempt to defect to the North, while the bereaved family has strongly protested the announcement and called for an additional probe and the disclosure of related information.
North Korea simply said in its message that “the illegal intruder was trying to flee” while disobeying its verbal security checks.