North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Friday issued a rare apology for the killing of a suspected defector from South Korea at sea earlier this week, AFP reported. North Korean soldiers had burnt the man’s body over fears that he may be carrying the coronavirus.

In a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the North Korean leader referred to the killing as an “unexpected and disgraceful event”. He also apologised to the South Korean president “for disappointing him and South Koreans” rather than helping them amid the “malicious coronavirus”, South Korea’s National Security Adviser Suh Hoon said.

The North Korean government also admitted to firing around 10 shots at the man, BBC reported, quoting the South Korean official. North Korea added that the man “illegally entered our waters” and refused to identify himself. The government also said that its guards had fired the man according to the standing instructions.

North Korea, however, denied burning the man’s body and said that its soldiers had only set fire to his “floating material”. “The troops could not locate the unidentified trespasser during a search after firing the shots, and burned the device under national emergency disease prevention measures,” North Korea said.

The South Korean government had on Thursday said that the man, who was working for the fisheries department, was on his patrol boat about 10 km from the border with North Korea, near the island of Yeonpyeong, when he disappeared on Monday.

He was killed around six hours after being found, a South Korean military official had told AFP. “He was shot dead in the water,” he had said. “North Korean soldiers poured oil over his body and burnt it in the water. We assess it was carried out under the North’s anti-coronavirus measure.” The official had added that the man was wearing a life jacket and his shoes were found on board the South Korean boat, facts that authorities said suggest he entered the water voluntarily.

South Korea had strongly condemned the “outrageous act” and urged the North to provide an explanation and punish those responsible.

North Korea has tightened its borders and is thought to have a “shoot-to-kill” policy in place to prevent Covid-19 contamination in the country. North Korea has so far not confirmed any cases of the virus, which has affected almost every country in the world. It had, however, imposed a lockdown in Kaesong city in June, claiming that the country’s first suspected case of the coronavirus had been reported there.