Park Tae-Hyun/Korea Pool/Pool EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

North Korean soldiers look toward the border with South Korea in the demilitarized zone at Panmunjom on Sept. 16.

SEOUL — A South Korean fisheries official who went missing from a patrol boat earlier this week was shot and then cremated by North Korean troops, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said Thursday, in what may have been a failed attempt to defect.

The 47-year-old official disappeared off the ship on Monday near the disputed maritime boundary with North Korea, the semiofficial Yonhap news agency reported, citing unnamed intelligence officials. Although the reasons for the official’s disappearance were unclear, Yonhap said he may have been trying to defect to the North.

“Our military strongly condemns such an atrocity, and strongly demands North Korea provide explanations and punish those who are responsible,” Gen. Ahn Young-ho, who is in charge of operations at South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference.

Colleagues found only the man’s shoes on the vessel and reported his disappearance to the Coast Guard, prompting a search operation involving about 20 boats and aircraft, Yonhap reported.

[North Korea locks down border city as first possible coronavirus case is announced]

Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said earlier this month that North Korean troops manning the border with China had been given “shoot-to-kill orders” to prevent anyone from bringing the novel coronavirus into the country.

Yonhap cited an intelligence official as saying said the official’s body may have been cremated as a precaution against covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

More than 33,000 North Koreans have fled to the South since the early 1990s to escape poverty and political oppression. It is extremely rare for South Korean nationals to attempt to defect to the North.

A North Korean defector who settled in the South was arrested by the South Korean police last week for breaking into a military training site near the border. The police said he was attempting to head back to the North.

Another North Korean defector who had crossed the border into the South three years ago swam back across the maritime border to the North in July. Pyongyang claimed he was a possible coronavirus carrier and locked down a border city where he had been present.

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