(ATTN: ADDS more comments in paras 7-8)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Oct. 7 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's military initially saw little possibility of a missing fisheries official ending up in North Korean waters, Defense Minister Suh Wook said Wednesday, as his family questions the government's assessment that he attempted to defect to the North.
On Sept. 22, the 47-year-old official was fatally shot by the North Korean military while adrift in the North Korean side of the Yellow Sea, according to the South Korean military. He went missing the previous day while on duty near the western border island of Yeonpyeong.
The Seoul military said that the citizen was presumed to have jumped into the sea in a suspected attempt to defect to the North, noting that he wore a life jacket, he left behind his shoes on the boat and the analysis of intelligence indicates that the man expressed such a desire to the North Korean side.
Announcing its interim probe results, the Coast Guard added that the analysis of the tidal current on the day of the incident led to the conclusion that the official could not have reached where he was found unless he swam to get there.
"On the first day, we didn't think he could cross into North Korea and did not check communication lines with the North," Suh said during a parliamentary audit after lawmakers criticized the ministry for its failure to swiftly seek North Korea's cooperation in searching for the official on the day he went missing.
"I was briefed that the chances were slim of him drifting into North Korean waters on the first day. We learned later through the analysis of intelligence that the official ended up in North Korean waters," Suh added.
The defense chief also stated that a civilian boat that belongs to a North Korean fishing firm was believed to have first spotted the official, and he expressed his defection intention to those aboard the boat.
"The vessel was then trying to haul him to land after hours of some procedures, but they missed the official," Suh said, adding that the North Korean navy then retrieved the official and later issued the order to kill him.
Whether he tried to defect to the North is one of the most contentious issues, as the bereaved family has strongly protested against the government's assessment and called for an additional probe and the disclosure of related information.
The family also called for a U.N. investigation into the case.
Suh made it clear that all responsibilities regarding the incident lie with North Korea, stressing the need for a joint probe, as the North's explanations differ from Seoul's assessment in key parts.
The South Korean military said the North is presumed to have incinerated the official's body, but Pyongyang claimed that what it set on fire was not his body but a floating material he used.
"We are analyzing those differences," Suh said. "As of now, however, we stick with our analysis."
Military tensions are continuing between the two Koreas since the incident, as Pyongyang issued threats over Seoul's normal search operations without responding to calls for a joint investigation, according to the minister.
The communist country warned the South on Sept. 27 not to intrude into its waters in the search for the body of the official. Pyongyang has long disputed the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto inter-Korean maritime boundary, turning the front-line waters into a major flashpoint of the peninsula.
North Korea expressed an apology for the incident and vowed to take steps to prevent recurrences, which indicates that the regime attempted to "manage the situation" to avoid turning public opinion in the South against it, the ministry noted. The rare apology by leader Kim Jong-un in a message from the North's United Front Department was unusually quick, coming only a day after South Korea demanded it.
"Since the incident, no unusual movements by the North Korean military have been detected," the ministry said. "It has made all-out efforts for recovery work from damage by recent heavy rains and typhoons to wrap it up before the founding anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party that falls on Oct. 10."
As for concerns raised by a lawmaker over the disclosure of classified military information acquired by South Korean and U.S. assets regarding the incident, Minister Suh said that U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) Commander Gen. Robert Abrams "voiced some concerns" about the excessive exposure.
The communist country remains mum on the South's call for a joint investigation into the case and the restoration of the inter-Korean military hotlines that the North severed in June in anger over anti-Pyongyang leaflets sent across the border by activists here.
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