Breaking News Analysis: North Korea Kills and Burns the Body of a Defecting South Korean Official

The barbaric killing will inevitably damage the Moon administration's inter-Korean agenda, but is unlikely to make a lasting impact in the domestic politics.

Breaking News Analysis: North Korea Kills and Burns the Body of a Defecting South Korean Official

Photo: Seo Ju-seok of South Korea's National Security Council denounces North Korea's killing of South Korean government worker.  Credit: Korea TV.

On September 22, the North Korean military guarding the western coast of the Korean Peninsula executed a South Korean government worker who was attempting to defect, then burned his body apparently out of fear of coronavirus. Based on available news, below is what happened, how South Korean government and politicians are reacting, and what it means for the Moon Jae-in 문재인 administration.


  • Around noon KST of September 21, it was reported that a minor South Korean government worker who was monitoring the fishing activities in the western coast went missing from his boat. South Korean police and military began the search that afternoon. The next day around 3:30 p.m., South Korean authorities received intelligence that the government worker was discovered off the coast of Deungsan-got Cape 등산곶, just north of Northern Limit Line 북방한계선 (the maritime DMZ line) and 38 kilometers away from where he was reported missing.
  • Around 4:40 p.m., South Korean authorities received intelligence that the government worker was attempting to defect into North Korea. North Korean soldiers in gas masks and hazmat suits took a boat to question the government worker who was still in the water when he expressed his intent to defect. The government worker, reportedly, was heavily indebted, recently divorced and running from loan sharks.
  • The government worker abandoned ship and left his shoes behind, apparently in an attempt to make it appear that he committed suicide, according to the briefing by the Ministry of Defense 국방부 to the National Assembly Defense Committee 국회 국방위원회. The government worker wore a life vest and a flotation device, and entered the water when the tide turned northward, and reached the North Korean shore. In a separate, closed-door session, the Defense Ministry shared additional details with the Defense Committee to establish that the government worker was attempting to defect.
  • South Korean authorities received intelligence around 9 p.m. that the North Korean military received the order to execute the government worker. Around 9:40 p.m., a North Korean patrol boat approached the government worker, shot and killed him. Around 10 p.m., North Korean soldiers in gas masks and hazmat suits approached the body to pour gasoline over and burn it. The South Korean military was able to observe the flame from its post.
  • The Blue House 청와대 first received a written report at 6:36 p.m. that the missing government worker was discovered in North Korea. After the government worker was killed, high-ranking South Korean officials including the Defense Minister 국방부 장관, Unification Minister 통일부 장관 and the National Intelligence Service Commissioner 국정원장 held a meeting at 1 a.m., where they largely were trying to assess the credibility of the reports. Meanwhile, at 1:26 a.m. local time, a pre-recorded speech by President Moon Jae-in 문재인 대통령 calling for inter-Korean peace began playing at the United Nations General Assembly.
  • President Moon received his first in-person report on this matter the next morning, at 8:30 a.m., September 23. Reportedly, Moon directed his senior staff to “inform people as the facts are.” At 4:35 p.m., South Korean military sent a message to North Korea via the United Nations Command to lodge a formal protest. Later that evening, the incident was made public.
  • North Korea has had a shoot-to-kill order at the border for any attempted crossing since February as a barbaric and rudimentary attempt to prevent the spread of coronavirus. According to a report by SBS, several smugglers from China were shot and killed in March and April at the China-North Korea border.


Photo: President Moon Jae-in attends the September 23 ceremony for newly promoted generals of the Republic of Korea military.  Credit: Website of the Office of the President.

  • The South Korean government, at all levels, strongly denounced North Korea. President Moon, through the Blue House spokesperson, issued a statement: “We deeply regret this shocking incident, which is unacceptable for any reason. The North Korean government must take responsibility and provide a proper response. The military must enhance its vigilance and make all preparations to protect the lives and safety of the people.” In a rare bipartisan moment, the National Assembly Defense Committee 국회 국방위원회 adopted a unanimous resolution calling the incident “a serious military provocation against the Republic of Korea and a very serious and grave threat to peace in Northeast Asia." The ruling Democratic Party 민주당's lawmakers, usually more conciliatory toward North Korea than their conservative opposition, also joined the denunciation as Assembly Member Song Yeong-gil 송영길, chairman of the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee 국회 외교통일위원장, called the incident "outrageous, especially considering the fact that North Korea's top leadership must have known if the execution happened more than six hours after the arrest.  . . . This is a clear act of crime and murder, committed against a civilian when it should not even happen to soldiers in a war."  
  • Moon Jae-in 문재인’s agenda for inter-Korean peace will inevitably take a hit. This barbaric killing came at an awkward moment for Moon, as his pre-recorded speech to the UN General Assembly calling for inter-Korean peace was airing at the same time when his senior staff was formulating a response to the incident. The silver lining for Moon, at least, is that the inter-Korean relationship was already at a nadir since the Kim Jong Un 김정은 regime destroyed the Kaesong Liaison Office 개성연락사무소 building in June. But whatever faint hope that the Blue House 청와대 may have had for a breakthrough, perhaps aided by US President Donald Trump’s desire to make a diplomatic splash before the presidential election in November, has all but evaporated. North Korea’s hysterical fear of coronavirus will make it impossible for Moon to pursue his agenda of cultural and humanitarian exchanges between the two Koreas.
  • In the South Korean domestic politics, the partisan convulsion will happen, but is unlikely to last. The conservative People Power Party 국민의힘 is attempting to make hay with this incident as the PPP leader Kim Jong-in 김종인 claimed President Moon failed to act in the six hours between receiving the intelligence that the government worker was found alive off the North Korean coast at 3:30 p.m. and was killed at around 9:40 p.m. But the unusual fact pattern of this case would make it difficult for PPP to create a strong public resonance. An attempted defector does not cut a sympathetic figure for most South Koreans, and even the PPP lawmakers did not dispute that the government worker attempted to defect after receiving the closed-door briefing from the military. For comparison, a North Korean defector’s repatriation across the DMZ in late July ceased being an issue in less than three weeks, although at the time it caused a sensation that resulted in the sacking of several police and military officials.

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