South Korean Marines patrol on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea.
South Korean Marines patrol on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea.

South Korea said Thursday that North Korean troops fatally shot a South Korean government official who may have attempted to defect and set his body on fire after finding him on a floating object near the countries' disputed sea boundary.

South Korean officials condemned what they called North Korea's "atrocious act" and urged it to apologise and punish those responsible.

North Korea is unlikely to accept the South Korean demand, and ties between the rivals - already strained amid a deadlock in broader nuclear diplomacy - will probably suffer a further setback, observers say.

According to Seoul, the man disappeared from a government ship that was checking on possible unauthorized fishing in an area south of the boundary on Monday, a day before he was found in North Korean waters.

North Korea sent officials wearing gas masks aboard a boat near the man to learn why he was there on Tuesday afternoon.

Later in the day, a North Korean navy boat came and opened fire at him, South Korea's Defense Ministry said.

Sailors from the boat clad in gas masks and protective suits poured gasoline on his body and set it aflame, the Defense Ministry said, citing intelligence gathered by surveillance equipment and other assets.

It's unclear how he ended up in North Korea. But a defense official said the man might have tried to defect to the North, citing acquired information. He refused to elaborate. The official, requesting anonymity citing department rules, said the South Korean official was wearing a life jacket and was on a small floating object when he was found in North Korean waters.

He said North Korea may have decided to kill him in line with its stringent anti-coronavirus rules that involve shooting anyone illegally crossing the border.

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