Kim Jong-un issues rare apology over killing of South Korean official

North Korea says shooting was part of measures to prevent Covid-19 entering country

North Korea has expressed regret that it shot dead a missing South Korean to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Photograph: STR/KCNA via KNS/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea has expressed regret that it shot dead a missing South Korean to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Photograph: STR/KCNA via KNS/AFP via Getty Images

 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un apologised on Friday for the shooting death of a South Korean fishersies official, as public and political outrage over the killing grew in the South.

The apology came in a letter from the North’s United Front Department, which handles cross-border ties, to South Korean president Moon Jae-in a day after South Korean officials said the North’s soldiers killed the man, doused his body in fuel and set it on fire.

The rare conciliatory message from the North Korean leader came as Mr Moon faced intense political fallout over the incident, which coincided with a renewed push by him for engagement with North Korea.

“Chairman Kim Jong-un asked to convey his feeling that he is greatly sorry that an unexpected unsavoury incident occurred in our waters which hugely disappointed President Moon Jae-in and compatriots in the South,” the adviser, Suh Hoon, told reporters.

The message said the official had been shot as part of measures to prevent people from bringing the coronavirus into the country, Mr Suh said.

The letter, he said, was a response to requests for an explanation for the incident and included a promise to prevent any recurrence. North Korea expressed hope the incident would not undermine recent efforts to foster trust, Mr Suh said, adding Mr Moon and Mr Kim had exchanged letters this month.

In his letter on September 8th, Mr Moon praised Mr Kim’s “strong resolve to save lives” and oversee anti-virus and flood recovery work letter, his office said. In a reply on September 12th, Mr Kim said Mr Moon would win the battle against the coronavirus and “good things” would happen later.

The leaders have held three summits and signed pacts to ease tension since 2018, but relations have soured since the collapse last year of a second summit between Mr Kim and US president Donald Trump, at which Mr Moon had offered to mediate.

Tough response

The shooting of the fisheries official, who had gone missing this week, shocked South Koreans and sparked a barrage of criticism from the opposition and the public, prompting an unusually tough response from Mr Moon, who called it “unpardonable”.

Critics accused Mr Moon of failing to save a citizen’s life while being soft on North Korea, saying the military did not attempt to save him despite spotting him six hours before he was shot dead.

South Korean officials said the man had run up debt and likely sought to defect to the North. But his brother dened that, saying he had just got a new boat and must have had some sort of accident.

“Not everyone who has debts wants to go to the North,” the brother, Lee Rae-jin, said on social media. He asked what the military was doing “when he was floating around our waters for almost a day?”

The North’s soldiers fired more than 10 shots at the man after he tried to flee without revealing his identity, Mr Suh said, citing the North’s letter.

But the North Korean side denied burning his body, saying the soldiers had burned a floatation device he was using in line with their anti-virus procedures, Mr Suh said.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the apology showed Mr Kim did not want the incident to escalate but it remained highly contentious in the South. “The letter showed Kim’s willingness to quickly resolve the situation but publicly it’s a very sensitive matter,” he said.

The shooting came a day after Mr Moon proposed a new initiative including North Korea to the UN General Assembly and called for a formal termination of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice, a long-standing North Korean demand.

But opposition politicians derided Mr Moon’s olive branch. “Now is not the time to speak of ending the war,” said Thae Young-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who is now an opposition lawmaker. He called for a formal investigation. – Reuters