North Korea on Friday blamed the Seoul government on its killing of a South Korean civilian, calling it an “accident” stemming from Pyongyang’s efforts to prevent the spread of COVID.
According to the South Korean military, North Korean soldiers found a South Korean fisheries official who drifted into North Korean waters last month, shot him to death six hours later and burned his body at sea.
The North Koreans told the South that their soldiers shot the man because he was reaching for something while in the water.
On Friday, the North’s Korean Central News Agency said the South was “primarily responsible for causing the unfortunate incident.”
The KCNA said the killing occurred because the South “failed to manage and control its own residents in sensitive waters at a time of high tension and danger due to the malicious virus that has swept South Korea.”
The mouthpiece of the totalitarian regime went on to criticize the South’s conservatives, including the main opposition party, for “using it as an opportunity for anti-North scheming.”
The KCNA stressed that Pyongyang has apologized to the South for the “unintended accident that took place in our sovereign waters, and has endured all kinds of badmouthing from within the South.”
There may be some truth to the North’s explanation, according to Cheong Seong-chang, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and senior analyst at the Sejong Institute.
North Korea, a destitute country with nearly zero ability to test for COVID-19 and lacking facilities to treat patients, has been taking extreme measures to prevent the virus from coming in, such as shooting smugglers entering from China, according to Cheong.
The relatively narrow Tumen River along the border between China and North Korea is easy for smugglers to cross in areas that lack surveillance. But Pyongyang has ordered its soldiers to shoot “any potential COVID-carrier crossing the border.”
When a North Korean who had defected to the South went back to the North’s border city of Kaesong in July, the country shut down the city for fear that he may have brought in the virus.
In addition to the North’s extreme fear of COVID, the abnormal relationship between the two Koreas, which are technically still at war, also made it difficult for the North Koreans to send a South Korean drifter back to the South, according to Cheong.
When either of the Koreas sees someone from the “enemy state” entering its territory, the first thing it does is interrogate the person to rule out spying or malicious intent.
Both sides have killed people coming over from the other side in the past, usually because they saw them as infiltrators.
“When the North Korean soldiers saw the South Korean fisheries official in their waters, the first thing they felt must have been fear of COVID,” Cheong said.
“Under normal circumstances, they would have brought him ashore and interrogated him. But under their COVID emergency measures, they didn’t, for fear of the virus. Had they brought him ashore, the whole region could go into lockdown like how it did in Kaesong. And because they couldn’t question him, they probably couldn’t eliminate the possibility that he may be a South Korean spy carrying information from the North.”
In a dilemma where they could neither bring him ashore nor send him back to the South, the North Koreans appear to have decided to shoot him, Cheong said, adding that it looks like they burned the floating object that he was holding onto and not his body, which would have sunk after they shot him.
By Kim So-hyun (firstname.lastname@example.org