Back To Top

[Herald Interview] NK could be lying about shooting: US defense analyst

South Korean military acted appropriately, expert says; retaliation would have led to dangerous escalation

Bruce W. Bennett (Rand Corporation)
Bruce W. Bennett (Rand Corporation)
The North Korean story about what led its officers to shoot a South Korean fisheries official who drifted into North Korean waters last week does not make sense, and the South Korean military acted appropriately, a US defense expert said Saturday.

“The Republic of Korea military could not legitimately go into the North’s waters to retrieve him without North Korean approval, which likely would have taken hours to achieve,” Bruce Bennett, adjunct international and defense researcher at the Rand Corporation, told The Korea Herald in an email interview in response to critics who say the South should have done something to save the civilian.

“Had the ROK military personnel violated this procedure and intruded into North Korean waters, they would set a precedent for North Korean units violating South Korean waters. In addition, the North Korean patrol boat almost certainly would have fired at the South Koreans, leading to a confrontation that could have escalated significantly. In my mind, the ROK military operated properly, even though their actions did not lead to a desired outcome.”

The American analyst also said the North Korean story of the man reaching for something, leading the soldiers to open fire, does not make much sense.

“If he could barely speak, how was he going to reach for a weapon and threaten them? So yes, this looks like a violation of international law even with the story the North told,” he said.

“I suspect that the North Koreans would have tried to burn the body to prevent COVID spread, and to eliminate evidence of their brutal killing.”

South Korea has mobilized vessels, including warships, since Friday to search for the body of the 47-year-old fisheries official.

South Korea said the North shot him and burned his body, while the North said the body was lost at sea.

The South Korean military reported that after shooting the unarmed civilian in the water around 9:40 p.m. on Sept. 22, North Korean soldiers wearing hazmat suits and gas masks poured oil on the body floating in the sea and burned it.

“The North Korean sailors likely had no experience with night-vision goggles, and thus did not know that the ROK personnel were able to see what they were doing. This description is very different from the North Korean description, suggesting that the North was not being truthful, trying to excuse its behavior,” Bennett said.

The fisheries official was the second South Korean civilian to be killed in North Korean territory. The first was Park Wang-ja, a South Korean tourist who was shot to death at the North’s Kumgangsan resort in 2008. 

Some South Koreans say Seoul should retaliate to show Pyongyang that it cannot kill South Koreans and get away with it simply by saying it was a mistake.

But the idea of Seoul retaliating with a precision strike -- for instance, targeting the person who gave the order to shoot the South Korean -- is most likely unfeasible, Bennett said, and would mean dangerous escalation even if it could be done.  

“The movies make the military appear to have magical capabilities, usually well beyond reality. But who would you define as the culprit? Everyone on the patrol boat? Their local commander? The local corps commander? Kim Jong-un? Would the ROK/US be able to find that person? And would he be a fixed target? Or would he be moving, making it difficult to target him?” he said.

And if the South responded with military force against a high-level North Korean officer, likely killing more people and violating North Korean territory, he asked, could Kim Jong-un just ignore it?

“The escalation/deterrence literature talks about a national leader in what is referred to as the domain of losses (someone who is not doing very well) becoming a risk taker who could escalate significantly, expecting that the risk-averse ROK/US would eventually back down. Could an incident like this turn into an escalation spiral, perhaps leading to general war?”

Bennett also mentioned stories of a new North Korean war plan leaked in 2015, which said the North, after thorough analyses of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, decided asymmetric warfare was the only answer as it wouldn’t have a chance if a war were to drag on.

If the North were to pursue this war plan, using disproportionate means such as nuclear weapons and missiles in the early stages of a war to forestall an influx of South Korean and US troops, North Korea could devastate the South within a week.

“In a week, very few US forces would be able to deploy from the US to the ROK, especially if many military-related facilities have been damaged,” the expert on Korean security issues said.

“If North Korea really had 30-60 nuclear weapons a year ago as US expert Sig Hecker said, meaning it likely has 35-75 now, a North Korean preemptive nuclear attack could seriously damage key airfields, ports, command/control, and logistical facilities. The ROK may not win such a conflict, and even if it does, it would be at best a Pyrrhic Victory. If such an outcome is even a 1% possibility, rational, risk averse leaders would not escalate.”

This is one of the reasons why North Korea continues building nuclear weapons and is highly unlikely to ever give them up, the US expert said.

By Kim So-hyun  (