By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, Sept. 24 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's brutal killing of a South Korean official drifting near the maritime border is expected to throw the already-frayed inter-Korean relations into an abyss, possibly forcing the government to halt all envisioned reconciliation efforts amid public outrage, experts said Thursday.
They, however, urged the government to take a cautious approach, saying that revealing what exactly happened must come first before any decision on inter-Korean relations. Dialogue with the North is more necessary now than any other time, they said.
South Korea's defense ministry confirmed earlier in the day that North Korean soldiers fatally shot a South Korean official in their waters and burned his body earlier this week after he disappeared while on duty aboard an inspection boat in waters off the western border island of Yeonpyeong.
It is the first time that a South Korean citizen has been killed by North Korea since a female tourist was shot dead in July 2008 at the Mount Kumgang resort on the North's east coast, which led to the closure of the tour program at the scenic mountain known as one of the most symbolic inter-Korean cooperation projects.
The latest incident also came as inter-Korean relations remained frozen after the North's recent explosion of a liaison office in its border town in June over the sending of anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.
"The South Korean civilian's death could have a far-reaching impact on inter-Korean relations by undercutting any remaining momentum that the government has tried to utilize for various alternatives in improving relations with the North," Hong Min, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said.
"The cooling period could last longer, as public sentiment could get worse against any cooperative projects without the latest situation being resolved," he added. "All projects that the government has sought to normalize inter-Korean relations could be put on hold altogether."
Inter-Korean relations have been stalled since the summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump ended without a deal in February last year.
The relations chilled further recently after the North blew up a joint liaison office in its border town of Kaesong and cut off cross-border communication in protest of the sending of anti-Pyongyang leaflets by activists in the South. This comes in stark contrast with rapprochement created after three inter-Korean summits held in 2018.
In a bid to kick-start the long-stalled relations with the North, Seoul has sought to expand exchanges in areas not subject to global sanctions and offered to provide humanitarian aid to North Korea struggling with its antivirus campaign and damage caused by typhoons and flooding in recent months.
In his recent speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations, President Moon Jae-in called for international cooperation to declare an end to the 1950-53 Korean War, one of the major demands that the North has made. Unification Minister Lee In-young has also vowed to push for "small-scale" exchanges with the North, especially in the humanitarian area.
Hong expressed worry that the latest border incident could be a repeat of a "swamp" that the death of the tourist in 2008 at Mount Kumgang created, as it is feared to cause a quagmire that cannot be solved without an apology from North Korea sincere enough to assuage anger and shock that South Korean people must feel about the death of one of their own.
"Public sentiment will get worse until the North makes an apology, but the problem is that it is uncertain the North will do so easily," he said. "To get the North to apologize, the government has to keep asking for it, and it could go on and on like that. Without the North's apology, things could fall into a swamp you cannot get out of when it comes to inter-Korean relations."
Some, however, cautioned against making any drastic decision on inter-Korean relations out of anger and called for a cool-headed approach until more information is available to better figure out what actually happened. They added that the two Koreas need dialogue more than ever to remove any possibility of understanding.
"To better figure out what actually happened, South Korea needs dialogue with the North more than ever," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul. "This is the time that both sides should keep cool-headed and talk to each other, so as to clarify what actually happened and reduce the chances of misunderstanding."
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said it is shocking that the North killed a South Korean citizen, voicing support for the government's condemnation and demand for an apology. But he noted that the government's push for better ties with the North should not be off track.
"In consideration of the shock that people are feeling from the latest incident, it appears inevitable for the government to slow down its push for an improvement in inter-Korean relations for some time in terms of the frequency and intensity of relevant messages (to the North)," he said.
"But the spirit of building peace with the North should be maintained. Small-scale exchanges should also be pushed for separately from issuing condemnation on the deadly incident," he added.