Shot South Korean official who was believed to be defecting to the North ‘had huge gambling debts’
- Seoul said civil servant, 47, was killed in border waters by North Korean navy
- However, his brother said he had more likely fallen into the sea by accident
- South Korea said the man swam against unfavourable currents with a life jacket
A South Korean man shot dead by Northern forces was trying to defect to the Communist dictatorship – to escape around £220,000 in gambling debts.
Seoul said the 47-year-old civil servant was killed in border waters by the North Korean navy after allegedly refusing to answer questions.
However, his brother said he had more likely fallen into the sea from a government inspection ship by accident.
A South Korean civil servant died after apparently trying to defect to the North and escape gambling debts. A government ship sails past South Korean Navy’s floating base (file photo)
The father of two’s death last week sparked a diplomatic row. Thousands risk their lives every year fleeing in the opposite direction – to the South.
South Korea said the man swam against unfavourable currents with the help of a life jacket and a floatation device and conveyed his intention of resettling in North Korea.
It’s unclear whether the announcement will sooth mounting questions about the man’s death.
Senior coast guard officer Yoon Seong-hyun said at a televised briefing on Tuesday that there was a ‘very low possibility’ that the man could have fallen from a ship or tried to kill himself because he was putting on a life jacket when he was found in North Korean waters.
Yoon said tidal currents at the time would also make it extremely difficult for him to drift into North Korean waters naturally.
The official jumped from a fisheries vessel near Yeonpyeong Island before crossing the maritime border between North and South Korea (pictured in white). He was picked up near Deungsan Cape (left) where he was questioned, then shot and burned, by North Korea
He also said the man conveyed his wish to defect before his death.
He cited intelligence showing North Korea knew the man’s name, age, height and hometown as an evidence of his communication with the North.
Yoon didn’t elaborate. But some experts said he likely was referring to South Korea’s interception of communications among North Korean officials about the man.
Coast guard officials have previously said the 47-year-old official was a father of two with some debts.
Yoon said the debts totaled about 330 million won ($282,240), 80% of which were from gambling.
The official had been aboard a government inspection ship before he disappeared on September 21 and was killed by North Korean troops the following day.
The coast guard said its assessment was based on an analysis of tidal currents in the area, a visit to a government boat the official had been aboard before his disappearance, investigation of his financial transactions and a meeting with South Korean Defense Ministry officials.
The man’s elder brother, Lee Rae-jin, told reporters later Tuesday that his brother was proud of his job as a public servant and never told him about a desire to defect.
‘The government is hastily framing my brother with a North Korea defection,’ Lee said.
He accused the government of losing ‘golden time’ and making little effort to salvage his brother.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has offered a rare apology over the man’s death, but his government hasn’t confirmed the man was trying to defect.
The man’s shooting has triggered a huge political firestorm in South Korea, with conservatives launching fierce political attacks on liberal President Moon Jae-in, who espouses greater ties with the North.