Updated 25 September 2020 | 17:12 IST
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 also as mounting criticism of its liberal President Moon Jae-in.
“Comrade Kim Jong Un, the State Affairs Commission chairman, feels very sorry to offer 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 among its public servants who were 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 responsibly.
According to the North Korean message, North Korean troops first fired blanks after the person found within the North’s waters refused to answer aside from saying he’s from South Korea a few times. Then, as he made moves to escape, the North Korean troops fired 10 rounds. once they came near the floating object, they only found much blood but no sign of him.
The troops determined he was dead and burned the floating object in line with anti-coronavirus rules, consistent with the North Korean message read by Suh.
Senior South Korean officer Ahn Young Ho told a parliamentary board meeting Thursday that North Korea killed the person likely due to elevated anti-coronavirus measures that involve “indiscriminate shooting” at anyone approaching its borders illegally.
Defense Minister Suh Wook said at an equivalent meeting that the official was believed to possess tried to defect because he left his shoes on the ship, placed on a life vest, and boarded a floating object. Suh also cited indirect 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 very fact South Korea had used “blasphemous and confrontational words like atrocious act” to condemn the North before asking it to elucidate details of the incident. But it said North Korea remains sorry about such an event happening on its territory and can take steps to stop trust between the countries from collapsing.
The presidential Blue House said Friday that Moon and Kim had recently exchanged letters before the newest incident. In his letter, Kim expressed worries about coronavirus outbreaks and typhoon damage in South Korea and wished Moon honest health.
“Kim Jong Un’s supposed apology reduces the danger of escalation between the 2 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 popular 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, like the 2015 front-line mine blasts that maimed two South Korean soldiers and therefore the 2008 shooting death of a South Korean tourist in North Korea. But it’s rare for a North Korean leader to try to so.
In 2002, Kim Jong Il, the late father of Kim Jong Un, said he felt “sorry” a few failed 1968 plan 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 govt for allegedly deliberately withholding the knowledge so as to not spoil the atmosphere before Moon’s speech at the virtual U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, during which he repeated his involves declaring an end of the Korean War during a bid to create an enduring peace on Korea.
Kim Chong-in, a pacesetter of the most 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 try to to with the incident because it had been prerecorded and conveyed to the U.N. days before the person disappeared from a government ship on Monday. Suh, the defense minister, said authorities also needed time to research 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 understood about the slain official, except that he was a 47-year-old father of two who left behind some debts, consistent with authorities. Maritime police said Friday they were checking the man’s cellphone records, bank accounts, and insurance programs.
The coast guard says it had been searching waters near the boundary just in case the officer’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.