NKorea's Kim Apologizes for Death 09/25 06:30
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un apologized Friday
over the killing of a South Korea official who was apparently trying to defect
near the rivals' disputed sea boundary, saying he's "very sorry" about the
incident, South Korean officials said.
It's extremely unusual for a North Korean leader to apologize to South Korea
on any issue. Kim's move will likely de-escalate tensions between the Koreas as
it's expected to ease anti-North sentiments in South Korea as well as mounting
criticism of its liberal President Moon Jae-in.
"Comrade Kim Jong Un, the State Affairs Commission chairman, feels very
sorry to give big disappointment to President Moon Jae-in and South Korean
citizens because an unexpected, unfortunate incident happened" at a time when
South Korea grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, Moon adviser Suh Hoon cited
the North Korean message as saying.
South Korea earlier accused North Korea of fatally shooting one of its
public servants who was likely trying to defect and burning his body after
finding him on a floating object in North Korean waters on Tuesday. South
Korean officials condemned what they called an "atrocious act" and pressed
North Korea to punish those responsible.
According to the North Korean message, North Korean troops first fired
blanks after the man found in the North's waters refused to answer other than
saying he's from South Korea a couple of times. Then, as he made moves to flee,
the North Korean troops fired 10 rounds. When they came near the floating
object, they only found lots of blood but no sign of him.
The troops determined he was dead and burned the floating object in line
with anti-coronavirus rules, according to the North Korean message read by Suh.
Senior South Korean military officer Ahn Young Ho told a parliamentary
committee meeting Thursday that North Korea killed the man likely because of
elevated anti-coronavirus measures that involve "indiscriminate shooting" at
anyone approaching its borders illegally.
Defense Minister Suh Wook said at the same meeting that the official was
believed to have tried to defect because he left his shoes on the ship, put on
a life jacket and boarded a floating object. Suh also cited circumstantial
evidence indicating the defection attempt. Some experts say there wasn't enough
proof to conclude he tried to cross over to North Korea.
Kim's message said North Korea "cannot not help expressing big regrets" over
the fact South Korea had used "blasphemous and confrontational words like
atrocious act" to condemn the North before asking it to explain details of the
incident. But it said North Korea is still sorry about such an incident
happening on its territory and will take steps to prevent trust between the
countries from collapsing.
The presidential Blue House said Friday that Moon and Kim had recently
exchanged letters before the latest incident. In his letter, Kim expressed
worries about coronavirus outbreaks and typhoon damage in South Korea and
wished Moon a good health.
"Kim Jong Un's supposed apology reduces the risk of escalation between the
two Koreas and keeps the Moon government's hopes for engagement alive,"
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said. "The shooting
incident was also turning South Korean public opinion against offering peace
and humanitarian assistance to Pyongyang."
North Korea has previously expressed "regrets" when it wanted to lower
tensions triggered by incidents involving South Korean casualties, such as the
2015 front-line mine blasts that maimed two South Korean soldiers and the 2008
shooting death of a South Korean tourist in North Korea. But it's rare for a
North Korean leader to do so.
In 2002, Kim Jong Il, the late father of Kim Jong Un, said he felt "sorry"
about a failed 1968 attempt to assassinate South Korean President Park
Chung-hee. In 1974, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un's grandfather, also said he was
"very sorry" when he met Park's spy chief in Pyongyang.
Before Kim's apology, Moon's government faced withering criticism by
conservatives following its admission that officials already had acquired
intelligence indicating the official's death right after it happened.
Conservatives lambasted the government for allegedly deliberately withholding
the information so as not to spoil the atmosphere ahead of Moon's speech at the
virtual U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, during which he repeated his calls
for declaring an end of the Korean War in a bid to build a lasting peace on the
Kim Chong-in, a leader of the main conservative opposition People Power
Party, called the official's killing "a national security disaster" that was
caused by Moon's "rosy illusion about North Korea."
The Blue House said Moon's speech has nothing to do with the incident
because it had been prerecorded and conveyed to the U.N. days before the man
disappeared from a government ship on Monday. Suh, the defense minister, said
authorities also needed time to analyze intelligence before formally holding
North Korea responsible.
Since taking office in 2017, Moon has been pushing hard for warmer ties with
North Korea and a negotiated settlement of the North's nuclear crisis. His
engagement policy once helped produce a flurry of rare exchange programs with
North Korea, but they were nearly stalled amid a deadlock in broader nuclear
diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington.
Little is known about the slain official, except that he was a 47-year-old
father of two who left behind some debts, according to authorities. Maritime
police said Friday they were checking the man's cellphone records, bank
accounts and insurance programs.
The coast guard says it was searching waters near the boundary in case the
official's body drifts back. The western sea boundary is where several bloody
inter-Korean naval skirmishes and deadly attacks blamed on North Korea occurred
in past years.