A South Korean fisheries official who went missing on Monday may have been shot dead by North Korean troops and later cremated after attempting to defect to the North, Yonhap news agency reported, citing unnamed intelligence sources in Seoul.
The official was reported missing from a South Korean fisheries patrol boat when it was about 10 kilometres (6 miles) south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), a disputed line of military control that acts as the de facto maritime boundary between North and South Korea.
The exact reason the 47-year-old official was shot is still unknown, but North Korean troops may have been acting under anti-coronavirus orders, Yonhap quoted multiple sources as saying.
South Korea’s defense ministry and National Intelligence Service did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The US military commander in South Korea said earlier this month that North Korean troops had been given “shoot-to-kill orders” to prevent the coronavirus entering the country.
While most defections involve North Koreans heading to the South, this year has seen a number of high-profile crossings from the South.
In July, a man who had defected to South Korea three years ago triggered a coronavirus scare when he crossed back over the heavily monitored border into North Korea, which has claimed to have zero cases of the disease.
His arrival prompted North Korean officials to lock down a border city and quarantine thousands of people over fears he may have had coronavirus, though the World Health Organization later said his test results were inconclusive.
Last week, South Korean police arrested a defector who they said had tried to return to North Korea by breaking into a military training site in South Korea’s border town of Cheorwon.