Seoul – South Korea said Tuesday that a government official slain by North Korean sailors wanted to defect, concluding that the man, who had gambling debts, swam against unfavorable currents with the help of a life jacket and a floatation device and conveyed his intention of resettling in North Korea.
Senior coast guard officer Yoon Seong-hyun said at a televised briefing 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 last week.
Yoon said tidal currents at the time would also make it extremely difficult for him to drift into North Korean waters naturally.
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.
Yoon 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 Tuesday the debts totaled about 330 million won ($282,240), 80 percent of which were from gambling.
It’s still unclear whether Tuesday’s announcement would sooth mounting questions about why the man was in North Korean waters. The brother of the late official has said it was more likely that he fell into the sea by accident. The official had been aboard a government inspection ship before he disappeared.
South Korea has accused North Korea of having fatally shot him and burning his body. North Korea acknowledged that its troops killed him because he refused to answer to questions and attempted to flee. But North Korea said its troops only burned the man’s floatation device.
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.