In an unprecedented move late Friday, South Korea proposed a joint investigation with North Korea into the mysterious death of a South Korean official, hours after a rare apology from Kim Jong Un.
As public and political outrage increased in the south, the country’s presidential office issued a statement saying there had been inconsistencies in reports of the incident and called for further investigation.
The South Korean Ministry of Defense said Thursday the North shot and burned the body of a 47-year-old man after he disappeared from a government boat earlier this week. He was reported missing while on duty on a fishing boat near Yeonpyeong Island, near the South Korean maritime border.
The government has said he may have tried to leave north, but his family has denied this.
The incident resulted in an apology from Kim in a letter to the South Korean Presidential House on Friday quoting him as saying he deeply regretted the “unfortunate incident in our waters”.
The letter also admitted that the North Korean military had fired blanks and later “ten rounds” shots at the unidentified “intruder” as he did not reveal his identity and appeared to be fleeing. It added that for safety reasons due to the coronavirus pandemic, they burned the floating device the officer washed up on but failed to find his body.
The news didn’t seem to reassure his southern neighbors.
After a meeting of the National Security Council, the South Korean Presidential Office said it had “decided to ask North Korea to conduct additional investigations and, if necessary, request a joint investigation with North Korea.”
The two Koreans have never conducted joint investigations into previous incidents and have been technically at war since the end of the Korean War in 1950/53.
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Earlier this week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in described the incident as “shocking” and “very unfortunate” as it fueled anti-North sentiment and sparked public backlash.
The Moon government is under pressure to respond to the incident, which coincided with a renewed push by Seoul to be engaged to Pyongyang.
South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party on Saturday said Kim’s apology was fake and urged the lunar government to refer the case to the International Criminal Court.
The South Korean Coast Guard said Friday that if the officer’s body drifts back, their ships will search the waters near the western maritime border.
There have been several bloody inter-Korean sea skirmishes and deadly attacks there in the past. Seoul said it would strengthen surveillance and military readiness in the West Sea areas to prevent any future recurrence.
Tensions between the two countries were already high when Pyongyang cut communications hotlines with the South this summer and dramatically destroyed an inter-Korean liaison office to foster better ties between the two.
North Korea has also attacked the South and North Korean defectors living there for propaganda leaflets and balloons thrown into the secret communist country.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.