Mystery surrounds Japanese govt official's death

SEOUL/BUSAN, South Korea - An unnamed 30-year-old Cabinet Office employee was found dead in waters off the coast of Kitakyushu's Wakamatsu Ward after being spotted on a drifting inflatable boat in late January. Mystery surrounds the ill-fated trip of the man, who was thought to have gone to Seoul to attend a conference.

The man, who was studying at a graduate school in the US state of Minnesota, requested permission from the Cabinet Office to travel to Seoul to attend a three-day international event called the Asia-Pacific Social Science Conference, where economic and financial issues were discussed from Jan. 8.

He checked into a hotel in downtown Seoul on Jan. 3 and checked out of the hotel the next day, then checked into a guesthouse about a kilometer away from the hotel, saying he would stay there until Jan. 11. The rate for the guesthouse was 55,000 won (S$64.90), which was cheaper than the hotel.

However, he then took his suitcase to another hotel hundreds of meters away from the guesthouse and left it there despite having never made a reservation at that hotel. According to a source close to the hotel, the suitcase contained a wallet and a personal computer. The man told hotel staff that he would come to pick the suitcase up later.

On Jan. 6, he appeared at an office in eastern Seoul for a company that sells boats.

Giving the model number of a boat, he told an employee at the office that he wished to buy the boat for fishing. He paid about 1 million won (about ¥94,000) in cash for the boat and an outboard motor. Referring to himself as "Alex from Hong Kong," he asked the employee to have the boat delivered to a hotel in Busan. The whole conversation was conducted in English, according to the employee.

"We were surprised with his sudden visit, as we normally sell our items through the Internet. The man wore a [sanitary] mask and a black jacket," the employee said. "He wouldn't tell me his contact information. He was suspicious."

The man was in Busan, about 2½ hours from Seoul by express train, on Jan. 8 when the conference he was supposed to attend started. He received the boat at the hotel near Busan station as requested, again identifying himself as Alex from Hong Kong. On the same day, he went to an auto supply shop 10 kilometers away from Busan and bought two batteries and a cable.

According to a shop employee, the man carried the batteries, which weighed as much as 30 kilograms, out to a taxi by himself and left the shop.

The Cabinet Office employee may have then returned to Seoul, as a man resembling him was recorded by a security camera at a guesthouse in Seoul on Jan. 10. That man left the guesthouse the next day.

About a week later, a patrol vessel of the 7th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters in Kitakyushu found a boat drifting in an area of the sea called Hibikinada on Jan. 18. The location was about 200 kilometers away from Busan.

The patrol vessel could not approach the boat for a rescue attempt due to bad weather, although the crew of the patrol vessel saw someone lying on the boat. The boat then capsized.

The body of the Cabinet Office employee was found on Jan. 20 underwater. The JCG regional office pronounced drowning as the cause of his death and said he may have been dead for a week or two.

The motives for his visit to South Korea remain a mystery. South Korean police, with whom Japan requested cooperation, also plan to investigate the case.