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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 
Korean Peninsula.

   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.

 
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