SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday issued a rare apology for the killing of a South Korean official near the two countries’ disputed border, the South’s presidential office said.
President Moon Jae-in’s office said it received a letter from Kim in which he expressed “immense regret” over the “unexpected and unfortunate incident.”
It is unusual for North Korea to admit wrongdoing or express remorse toward South Korea, its arch rival with which it remains technically at war.
A day earlier, South Korea condemned the North for its treatment of the fisheries official, who disappeared from a government patrol boat near the disputed maritime frontier earlier this week in what authorities described as an ill-fated attempt to defect. The 47-year-old was killed by North Korean troops and his body burned, the Defense Ministry said, an act that Seoul labeled an “atrocity.”
It was not clear how the man, who had been wearing a life jacket and was clutching a floating object, ended up in North Korean waters, Seoul’s defense officials said. His colleagues found only his shoes left on the boat.
South Korean officials said North Korean military personnel could have shot the man because of strict orders to prevent the novel coronavirus from entering the country.
The letter, sent from Pyongyang’s United Front Department that oversees relations with the South, said North Korean military personnel opened fire at the man after he did not respond to their orders and attempted to flee.
The soldiers fired 10 shots and approached the scene, where they found the man’s body and the floating object some distance away, the letter said. It added that the soldiers burned the flotation aid due to coronavirus rules.
South Korean national security adviser Suh Hoon, who disclosed the content of the letter to reporters, said Pyongyang sent the letter in response to Seoul’s demand for explanations about the incident. Suh said leaders of the two Koreas recently exchanged notes to discuss cross-border relations and solutions for the coronavirus crisis.
The killing of the South Korean citizen dealt a blow to President Moon’s push to improve ties with the North. But Pyongyang’s quick expression of remorse appeared to leave room to make amends.
“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,” said Leif Eric-Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “Kim’s diplomatic move avoids a potential fight in the short-term and preserves the option of reaping longer-term benefits from Seoul.”