North Korea Kills, Torches South Korean Civilian in Bizarre Maritime Incident

The confusing affair could make it even harder for South Korean President Moon Jae-in to continue warming up to the North.

Members of the South Korean Navy
Members of the South Korean Navy conduct drills off the coast of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea on May 29, 2009. BYUN YEONG-WOOK/AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday at the United Nations, South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for the world to usher in an era of peace by signing an end-of-war declaration for the two Koreas, still not formally at peace after the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.

That same day, North Korea reportedly executed and incinerated a South Korean official who had mysteriously crossed the maritime demarcation line separating North from South—potentially crushing Moon’s hopes for “positive changes to the world order.”

For Moon, an advocate of closer relations with North Korea—the so-called Sunshine Policy—the killing threatens to weaken already eroding public support for his campaign of rapprochement, forcing Moon to adopt a hard-line stance against the North, a completely new position for the man who for years has tried to engage with the North via joint economic ventures and rarely ever doles out harsh criticism of the de facto enemy.

“Public opinion in South Korea is going to turn very negative. It’s already negative, but it was very shocking what they did to the South Korean,” said Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow focusing on North Korea at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

This week’s killing follows the deliberate demolition by North Korea in mid-June of a liaison office that facilitated communications between the two nations, effectively severing communications. The latest incident threatens Moon’s ability to continue with the Sunshine Policy. 

“You can tell that the government can sense that, that’s why they’re coming out and very strongly condemn what happened,” Go said.

Moon called it a “shocking” incident, while the South Korean Defense Ministry condemned the “brutality” of the North, demanding an explanation and punishment for those responsible. 

The incident remains shrouded in confusion. The 47-year-old official from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries was aboard an inspection ship in the Yellow Sea, and he was reported missing on Monday after he didn’t show up for lunch. He’d left his shoes behind but took a life jacket.

Officials of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff suggested that the official had sought to defect. But the official’s family and colleagues were baffled by that notion, as he had never shown such interest. The Coast Guard searched the vessel where he worked and found “no indication of an attempt to defect,” according to the Korea Times

What is known is that, according to South Korean military logs, the official made contact with a North Korean patrol at 4:40 p.m. local time, and he was shot at 9:40 p.m. on instructions from a “higher authority.” Afterward, North Koreans poured gas on his body and set it ablaze on the open sea. 

The North is currently operating under “shoot-to-kill” orders as a way to keep the COVID-19 pandemic at bay; the country claims to be coronavirus-free. In July a North Korean who had defected to the South returned North, sparking fears that the defector would bring in the contagious virus.

The speed and brutality of the execution has outraged many South Koreans, including important lawmakers. 

“Even if you suspect them of being a spy, even if it is a prisoner caught during war, they can’t be killed on the spot without a trial!” Song Young-gil, a member of the ruling party and the Committee on Foreign Affairs, wrote in a Facebook post, in which he accused the North of “murder.”

It’s not the first time a North Korean killing could endanger warming ties between the two countries. In 2008, North Korean troops shot and killed a South Korean civilian after she entered a restricted zone in the Mount Kumgang resort, located inside North Korea—a symbol of inter-Korean cooperation that was scrapped after the killing.

Some suspect that, as in 2008, the latest incident could rattle, but not derail, the push for something resembling normalized relations. 

“[The South Korean government] is essentially asking the North Korean government to apologize. It doesn’t have to be much, but if they just express a minimum of regret, the Blue House is going to take it as an apology and try to resume whatever they’re doing right now to engage North Korea,” Go said.

Morten Soendergaard Larsen is a freelance journalist based in Seoul who writes about geopolitics.