Brother of South Korean killed by North rejects claim he tried to defect

SEOUL – The brother of the South Korean fisheries officer, who was killed by North Korean soldiers at sea last week, rejected government claims on Tuesday that the man had expressed his willingness to defend against the soldiers.

The death of the officer, identified only by his last name Lee, sparked an argument over why and how he was found swimming in North Korean waters almost 36 hours after his disappearance.

The Coast Guard said after an investigation based on CCTV footage, military intelligence and background footage, it found that Lee told North Korean troops he was defying and they were aware of his detailed personal information.

“We have confirmed that the north side has backed up his personal information that he would only know, including his name, age, hometown and height, and that the missing person has indicated his willingness to go north” said Yoon Sung-hyun, chief of investigation and intelligence at the Coast Guard.

Yoon said the possibility is “extremely slim” that Lee might have lost his footing or tried to kill himself for wearing a life jacket and flotation device when he was found about 23.6 miles from his missing person.

Yoon said the official ran into debt of around 330 million won ($ 282,000), mostly through gambling, but it is still unclear if he wanted to flee for that reason.

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But the man’s brother, Lee Rae-jin, said it must have been an accident as he was proud of his job, just got a new boat, and left a government ID card that made his migration easier.

Questioning the government’s evidence, he suggested that the north may have tampered with the audios as the two military officers frequently eavesdrop on each other.

“Most old men our age are in debt and have family problems, but who would go north because of it?” he told a press conference.

Lee accused the government and the military of missing “golden opportunities” to save his brother by denying his requests for more ships and helicopters during an initial search while his brother was still in the water.

South Korean sea boats patrol near Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, on Tuesday.Kim Do-hoon / AP

He said only several boats and a helicopter were mobilized on September 21 and 22. His brother was missing on September 21st and shot the next day.

“My brother even refused to join my business and said he would retire as a civil servant and was proud of it,” he said.

The Coast Guard and Navy expanded their search for the man’s body with dozens of ships this week after Pyongyang said soldiers only burned one flotation device to avoid the risk of a novel coronan virus outbreak.

South Korea has accused the North of dousing his body with fuel and setting it on fire after killing the man, calling for a joint investigation.

Pyongyang remains silent about the joint investigation starting Tuesday, but Leader Kim Jong Un has apologized. State media said the north conducted its own search for the man’s body, but warned the south not to create tension by entering its waters.

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