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South Korea officially requests North to jointly probe civilian killing

South Korean Marine Corps soldiers patrol the waters off the western border island of Yeonpyeongdo on Sunday. (Yonhap)
South Korean Marine Corps soldiers patrol the waters off the western border island of Yeonpyeongdo on Sunday. (Yonhap)

South Korea on Sunday officially requested North Korea join a joint investigation into the killing of a South Korean fisheries official by North troops last week and reopen a military communication line for the exchange of information.

Cheong Wa Dae made the announcement after President Moon Jae-in presided over an emergency security-related ministers’ meeting regarding the incident in the afternoon. The top office has also requested China’s support in the search of the dead man‘s body, it added.

The two Koreas have never before conducted a joint investigation into incidents since the Korean War, with observers skeptical that the North will accede to Seoul’s request. 

A 47-year-old South Korean civil servant was shot to death by North Korean soldiers after he drifted into its waters last week. Since Friday, Seoul has mobilized vessels including warships near the disputed Northern Limit Line, a de facto inter-Korean maritime border, to search for his body.
 
The South says the North killed and then incinerated the man, whereas the North says it shot at the “illegal intruder” and burned the object he was floating on -- not his body, which was lost.
 
North Korea on Sunday accused the South of intruding into its waters to search for the body of a fisheries official recently killed by the North’s troops at sea, warning that any border violations could escalate tensions in the area.

“We urge the south side to immediately halt the intrusion across the military demarcation line in the West Sea that may lead to an escalation of tensions,” the North’s official Korea Central News Agency said, adding that the South Korean vessels near the site had crossed into its territory. “It arouses our due vigilance as it may lead to another awful incident.”

The KCNA added that the North plans to search for the body on its own and is considering ways to hand it over to the South if it’s found.

The NLL has been a flashpoint as Pyongyang took issue with the sea border, which was drawn by the US-led UN command after the 1950-53 Korean War, arguing the line should be drawn farther South.

On Sunday, South Korea’s Coast Guard and Navy continued their search for the body of the late official and his belongings, mobilizing 39 vessels, including 16 naval ships, and six aircraft for their operations near the border area of Yeonpyeong, where the man appears to have gone missing last Monday.

The Coast Guard official said the search has been conducted strictly within waters south of the NLL.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made a rare apology over the fatal shooting on Friday, saying he was “very sorry” for the “unexpected and disgraceful event” that had “disappointed South Korean President Moon Jae-in and South Koreans.”

While admitting to the killing, the North gave a different account of the incident from Seoul. It said the man entered North Korean waters and did not respond to orders from its soldiers to identify himself. When the man appeared to flee, the North Korean troops fired blanks and later fired 10 shots from a distance. Later, when the soldiers approached the flotation device the man was on, they only found blood and not the body. After failing to find his body, the soldiers burned the floating object in line with strict anti-coronavirus guidelines.

Also while military officials here, citing intelligence, say the man was attempting to defect to the North and was grilled by the North Korean officials before his death, Pyongyang did not mention the late man’s intentions but just said “the illegal intruder was to flee.”

South Korea’s Coast Guard on Friday requested that the military share information on the man’s suspected defection attempt, as the police could not find clear evidence pointing to the late official’s intention to defect during its initial investigation. The late man’s brother also disputed the defection claim, saying there must have been an accident.

The military said that internal discussion is necessary before deciding whether to reveal the information, and that it will notify the Coast Guard by Monday. 

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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