South Korea said on Saturday it will request North Korea to further investigate the fatal shooting of a South Korean government official who went missing near the tense sea border between the two countries last week.
After a National Security Council meeting, South Korea’s presidential office said it would call for a joint probe into the case with the North if needed, saying there were discrepancies in accounts of the incident from the two sides.
The fisheries official was shot by North Korean troops on Tuesday, in a killing that sparked outrage in the South and drew a rare apology from the North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un.
Kim was quoted as saying he was “very sorry” over what he described as an “unexpected, unfortunate incident” in a message sent by Pyongyang’s United Front Department, a North Korean government agency in charge of inter-Korean relations.
South Korea’s military said on Thursday that the North’s soldiers killed the man, doused his body in fuel and set it on fire near the sea border. But the North Korean government said its soldiers shot the “illegal intruder” and denied burning his body. The message from Pyongyang largely passed the blame for the shooting to the South Korean official, claiming that he refused to answer questions and attempted to flee before North Korean troops fired at him.
“We have decided to request the North to conduct an additional investigation and also request a joint investigation with the North if needed,” the Blue House said in a statement on Saturday. It said the South will also “swiftly take measures to further strengthen surveillance posture” in waters off the country’s western coast to prevent similar incidents.
South Korea’s coastguard was deploying dozens of vessels and hundreds of officers to search waters near the western sea border Saturday for the official’s remains. The North’s state media have yet to report on the incident or Kim’s apology.
The main opposition People Power Party said on Saturday Kim’s apology was not genuine and that the case should be sent to the International Criminal Court and the UN Security Council.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s government faces intense political pressure over how it responded to the incident, which coincided with a renewed push by the president for engagement with Pyongyang.
Critics accused Moon of failing to save a citizen’s life and being soft on North Korea, saying the military did not attempt to save him despite spotting him six hours before he was shot dead.
The government official was reported missing while on duty on a fisheries boat near the island of Yeonpyeong close to South Korea’s sea border.
South Korea’s military said the man was apparently attempting to defect to the North, but his brother refuted the claims, saying that he must have had an accident.
Kim’s apology in the case was a rare occurrence, according to analysts.
“While much will be made of whether the North’s apology portends an improvement in inter-Korean relations, more positive actions by Pyongyang will be necessary,” Bruce Klingner, a senior researcher at the United States-based Heritage Foundation, told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
North Korea has previously expressed “regrets” when it wanted to lower tensions triggered by incidents involving South Korean casualties, such as the 2015 front-line mine blasts that maimed two South Korean soldiers and the 2008 shooting death of a South Korean tourist in North Korea. But it is rare for a North Korean leader to do so.