YANGON–Local police and the Korean embassy have confirmed that a body found in northern Shan State’s Namtu River over the weekend is not the body of the missing female Korean tourist, but that of a man who reportedly died over five months ago in the same river.
Last Friday, a Korean woman and other four tourists visited Hsipaw Township’s Namtu Township, which is situated in a part of northern Shan State which is actively contested among armed groups in the area. In recent months, in neighboring Kyaukme Township, armed fighting has occasionally broken out between ethnic Shan armed groups and government troops.
The Korean lady and her fellow travelers tried riding down the river on a tube—an activity known internationally as “tubing”—and weren’t wearing lifejackets. Younghee Heo, 45, fell from the tube and disappeared into the rapid waters of Namtu River. A rescue team and local authorities have been searching for her for more than one week and only discovered the unidentified male corpse on Sunday morning.
Police Officer U Htay Lwin from northern Shan State’s Hsipaw Police Station explained to The Irrawaddy over the phone that what the rescue team retrieved from the river on Sunday, thirteen miles from where Heo disappeared, was little more than a skull and a pair of thigh bones. In order to scientifically verify whether the remains belong to Heo, authorities quickly transferred them to a hospital in Mandalay for forensic identification.
Based on the bone structure, doctors from Mandalay General Hospital initially concluded that bone was likely to be that of a male who died more than five months ago, according to Officer Htay Lwin.
“To make sure, doctors will conduct further DNA checks,” he said.
An official from the Korean embassy in Yangon, who requested not to be named in this article, corroborated police reports that the remains belonged to a man.
Some local newspapers have reported that the Korean embassy in Yangon has officially announced a $5,000 reward for the corpse if discovered. When questioned on the offer of a reward, the official said that his embassy did not offer any financial reward for the body, but that it was in fact announced by a family member of the Korean lady via Facebook.
On Tuesday morning, Beum Rae Chung, owner of Myabiz, a Korean-language travel and lifestyle website about Myanmar, put out a fresh plea on social media saying that he and his counterparts believe Heo may be still alive.
“Miss Heo [is] missing for over 12 days, but being a strong woman, we believe that she is alive somewhere,” read the post published on his own Facebook account as well as Hsipaw News, a public Facebook group.
The post, accompanied by photos of Heo, went on to request that anyone who believes they may have seen her or have any information that may help the ongoing investigation, report to the nearest police station.
Although the tourism ministry officially only allows tourists to visit downtown Hsipaw, many tourists travel further afield, sometimes to unsafe zones, for trekking, kayaking and overnight stays in tree-houses in the dense forest. As of Tuesday, fighting between the TNLA and the RCSS in neighboring Kyaukme Township is ongoing and the rescue team is unable to continue their search further along Namtu River.