Kim Jong Un has issued an extremely rare apology after his soldiers were accused of shooting a South Korean official dead and setting his body on fire.
The dictator called the killing of a possible defector ‘unexpected and disgraceful’ as he tried to relieve tensions between the two countries.
Tuesday’s shooting was the first time the north’s forces have killed a South Korean citizen in more than a decade and prompted what’s thought to be the first official apology from a supreme leader since 1976.
A fisheries worker was shot by soldiers after being spotted clinging to a floating object in North Korean waters. Seoul said his body was set on fire while still in the water, apparently as a precaution against coronavirus infection.
Reading from a letter he said was sent from the north, Suh Hoon, the south’s National Security Adviser, said Kim was ‘very sorry’ for the ‘unexpected and disgraceful event’ that had ‘disappointed President Moon and South Koreans’, rather than helping them in the face of the ‘malicious coronavirus’.
There was no immediate confirmation of the contents of the message from the north, whose state media did not mention the incident on Friday. North Korean defector turned Seoul-based researcher Ahn Chan-il said it was ‘extremely rare for the North’s supreme commander to offer an apology, especially to South Koreans and their president’.
He said: ‘I think this is the first since the 1976 Korean axe murder incident,’ referring to the killing of two US officers in the demilitarised zone that divides the peninsula.
South Korean media reports said the victim was in his 40s with two children, but had recently divorced and had financial problems.
Wearing a life jacket, he disappeared from a patrol vessel near the western border island of Yeonpyeong on Monday, and North Korean forces located him in their waters more than 24 hours later.
It’s believed that the man was interrogated while in the water over several hours and expressed a desire to defect, but refused to answer any questions other than saying he’s from South Korea ‘a couple of times.’ According to the letter, North Korean troops first fired blanks but then shot the man 10 times when he tried to flee after an ‘order from superior authority’.
It added that the body disappeared under water after the shooting and troops only burnt the life jacket, not any human remains.
The incident raised tensions again between the two countries, after a series of pacts and summits since 2018. South Korean President Moon Jae-in – a consistent advocate of better relations with Pyongyang – had said the shooting ‘could not be tolerated for any reason.’
He faced criticism for apparently ignoring intelligence which could have saved the man. 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.’
Experts said the apology would have an impact. ’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 is on high alert due to the pandemic and anti-coronavirus measures allow ‘indiscriminate shooting’ at anyone approaching its borders illegally.
The country’s crumbling health system would struggle to cope with a major virus outbreak but it has not confirmed a single case of the disease that has swept the rest of the world.