Kim Jong-un sends rare apology for death of South Korean official
Suh Hoon, South Korea’s director of the National Security Office in the Blue House, relayed the remarks to local reporters during a press briefing Friday, saying it was part of a message Seoul received earlier that day from the United Front Department, an organ in the North’s ruling Workers’ Party that deals with South-North ties.
Exactly how Seoul received the North Korean statement was unexplained.
It was the first time North Korea has ever spoken out about the incident, after South Korean military officials and President Moon Jae-in pressed the regime to offer an explanation.
South Korea’s military said Thursday they had intelligence indicating the South Korean official was killed and burned by the North at around 9:40 p.m. Tuesday after crossing the inter-Korean maritime border in the Yellow Sea, known in the South as the Northern Limit Line (NLL).
Exactly how and why the South Korean official ended up in the North is still a mystery, though Seoul military officials say they strongly believe he tried to defect to the North, which his family adamantly denies. Seoul military officials also said they think the North killed and burned him out of fear of coronavirus contagion.
The South Korean official has been identified as a 47-year-old who worked for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries’ West Sea Fisheries Management Service.
In Friday’s message, the North said the South Korean official was “suspected” to have been fatally shot by North Korean soldiers after he was found in North Korean waters by fishermen, who reported the man to the North Korean military.
But the North denied that his body was burned.
North Korean soldiers were said to have fired around 10 shots “toward the illegal intruder” from 40 to 50 meters (131 to 164 feet) away in the sea after the South Korean refused to follow orders from them and at one point “hunkered down” on top of the “floating material” he was on, “acting as if he was about to wear something over his body.”
After the 10 shots were fired, the North Korean soldiers approached to within about 10 meters from the floating material, but the South Korean was no longer visible on top of the material, the North Korean message read.
“Many bloodstains” were said to have been found on the floating material. North Korean soldiers assumed he was dead and burned the material on nearby land, the message continued, without offering any further details about the body.
The North expressed “grave regret” toward the South Korean military for “groundlessly” accusing the North of brutality, but said it was “sorry” that such an unfortunate incident had happened in its waters.
Towards the end of the message, North Korean leader Kim, in a rare sign of contrition, was quoted as saying he was immensely sorry to President Moon and the South and North Korean people for “disappointing” them with the unexpected and unfortunate incident.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said later Friday that Kim appeared not to have given the order to fatally shoot the South Korean official.
While relaying the North’s latest message, National Security Director Suh also mentioned that Kim and Moon exchanged letters earlier this month before the killing.
Moon was said to have sent a letter to Kim on Sept. 8, to which Kim responded four days later. How the letters were exchanged was not revealed.
According to Suh, Moon told Kim that both Koreas were going through tough times this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, torrential rains and typhoons, and that he was rooting for the North to overcome the obstacles.
“Collapsed houses can be rebuilt, disconnected bridges can be reconnected and fallen rice plants can be set upright again, but people’s lives are an absolute value that cannot be restored and cannot be traded with anything else,” Moon said, adding it was pertinent to “protect the lives and safety of our 80 million people.”
Kim was quoted by Suh as responding he felt “brotherly love” from Moon’s consoling letter, and that he, too, would use “this opportunity to show unpretentious sincerity” to Moon and the South Korean people.
BY LEE SUNG-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]