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N Korea at crossroads

3 mysteries cloud South Korean's shooting death by North Korea

Grieving family casts doubt on allegation that victim defected to the North

Lee Rae-jin, the older brother of a South Korean fisheries official killed by the North Korean military, reacts during a news conference Tuesday in Seoul.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- The shooting death of a South Korean official by North Korean soldiers leaves the man's family -- and opposition parties in Seoul -- with mysteries they want their government to resolve.

Despite a rare apology from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that averted a further deterioration of bilateral relations, the family and others seek answers to three questions: Was the official really defecting to North Korea? Why was no rescue attempt made? And why did it take President Moon Jae-in days to address the slaying publicly?

The fisheries official, a 47-year-old man identified only by his surname Lee, was killed on Sept. 22 upon entering North Korean territorial waters. Soldiers fired 10 bullets at the man, according to an account provided by the North.

The fisheries patrol boat on which Lee was aboard reported him missing at 11:51 a.m. on Sept. 21. The South Korean military on Sept. 24 said there was a "high probability" that Lee intentionally crossed into North Korean territory.

In South Korea, defecting to the North is a crime. The South's coast guard officially aired that accusation in an interim report on Tuesday.

The coast guard reported that Lee wore a life jacket and used a floating object when he entered North Korean waters. The North Korean military knew the name, age, hometown and other identifying details of the victim, and the coast guard alleged that the man had expressed to the North his intent to defect.

The maritime agency based the interim investigation results partly on classified intelligence from the South's military. Defense personnel apparently intercepted communication by the North Korean military.

The coast guard further reported that Lee had amassed debts totaling 330 million won ($282,000), mostly from online gambling. Officials suspect Lee's precarious finances provided the primary motivation for crossing the border.

Lee's family furiously criticized those findings.

"I spoke with my brother two days beforehand, and there were no indications that he would cross into North Korea," Lee Rae-jin, the older brother, said at a briefing with foreign media Tuesday.

"I'm also in debt," Lee added incredulously. "If debt is a reason to defect to the North, then 50% to 60% of the common people in South Korea would have already done so."

The South Korean military says a vessel from the North Korean fisheries office found the man floating at sea around 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 22. The ship's crew questioned him while wearing gas masks as a safeguard against the coronavirus.

At 9:40 p.m., North Korean military officers shot him dead on orders from their superiors.

Monitoring equipment of the South Korean military on Yeonpyeong Island noticed a fire just 31 minutes later. The military said on Sept. 24 that the fire was used to burn the body, but North Korea said the following day that it was only burning debris.

Many have questioned why South Korea's military did not attempt a rescue, despite seemingly tracking the man for six hours before his death.

"It's not like we could physically see him," a defense ministry source said. "It took us quite some time to gather secret information and piece it together, analyze the situation and report it to the military leadership."

The North Korean ship appeared to be trying to rescue the man after their initial contact. But "the situation evolved rapidly, and there was only so much we could do," the source said.

Also unusual is that Moon made no direct mention of the shooting in public until Monday, six days later, when he offered an apology.

"The government should protect the lives and safety of the people," the president said.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in apologized to the people six days after the shooting. (Photo courtesy of South Korea's presidential office)

A source in the president's office said the delay was necessary to give Moon "time to deliberate on his decisions." Given the gravity of the incident and the potential for a rupture in North-South relations, time was needed to confirm the facts surrounding the matter, the source said.

However, Moon did blast North Korea's action as "shocking" and "unpardonable" through a presidential spokesman on Sept. 24.

Yet the killing appears not to have altered the Moon administration's posture toward Pyongyang. About four hours after the man's death, Moon gave a recorded video speech to the United Nations General Assembly, with no revisions to the original language.

The address called for a formal declaration to end the Korean War, which the president said would "open the door to complete denuclearization" and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, as he sought international cooperation to this end.

Less than a week later, on Monday, Moon's Democratic Party of Korea submitted a resolution calling for an end-of-war declaration to a parliamentary committee.

Opposition lawmakers have blasted the government's response.

"It seems that the government knew what was going on and yet took no action," Kim Chong-in, interim leader of the conservative People Power Party, said Monday. He speculated that the government was worried about posing problems for Moon's U.N. speech.

"The government's attitude was also ambiguous after the destruction of the inter-Korean liaison office" in Kaesong in June, he said. "I don't understand how it can be this lenient."

The Justice Party, which is to the left of Moon's Democratic Party, also questioned the administration's priorities.

"The idea among some in the ruling party that North-South relations take precedence over the lives of our citizens must be corrected," Sim Sang-jung, who stepped down as the party's leader this week, said Monday. "It is necessary for the improvement and development of inter-Korean relations to take a firm stance to ensure that such barbarism by North Korea is not repeated."

While running for president, Moon wrote on his Facebook page in April 2017 that he would be the South Korean leader whom Kim Jong Un fears most.

But an article Monday in the Maeil Business Newspaper said it is "clear that he is watching Kim's response and taking care not to provoke North Korea." It urged Moon not to let his "promises to the people be just empty words."

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