North Korea expressed regret on Friday for having shot dead a South Korean man to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the South’s national security adviser said, amid growing public and political outrage.
The apology figured 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 Seoul officials said the North’s soldiers killed the man, doused his body in oil and set it on fire.
The rare message came as Moon faced intense political fallout over the incident, which coincided with a renewed push for steps to engage Pyongyang this week.
“Chairman Kim Jong Un asked to convey his feeling that he is greatly sorry that an unexpected and unsavory incident occurred in our waters which hugely disappointed President Moon Jae-in and compatriots in the South,” said Suh Hoon, the adviser.
“The letter was a quick response to our requests and included the explanations for the incident, an apology and promises to prevent recurrence,” he told a briefing.
North Korea’s leadership hopes the incident does not undermine recent efforts to foster trust between the neighbours, Suh cited the North’s letter as saying, adding that Moon and Kim had exchanged letters this month in hopes of better ties.
Moon praised Kim’s “strong resolve to save lives” and steer virus control and flood recovery work in his Sept. 8 letter, his office said. In a Sept. 12 reply, Kim said Moon would win the COVID-19 battle and “good things” would happen after that.
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 Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, at which Moon had offered to be a mediator.
The shooting of the man, a fisheries official who had gone missing this week, shocked many South Koreans, sparking a fierce backlash from the opposition and the public, prompting an unusually stringent response from Moon, who called it “unpardonable”.
Critics accused Moon of failing to save a citizen’s life while being still soft on North Korea, saying the military did not attempt to save him despite spotting him six hours before the shots were fired.
“Now is not the time to speak of ending the war,” said opposition lawmaker Thae Young-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who called for a formal investigation by the government.
The North Korean soldiers fired more than 10 shots at the man after he tried to flee without revealing his identity, Suh cited the North’s letter as saying.
But the letter said they burned a floatation device he was using, according to their anti-virus manuals, and not his body.
“The troops could not locate the unidentified trespasser during a search after firing the shots, and burned the device under national emergency disease prevention measures,” Suh added.
In 2008, North Korean troops shot and killed a South Korean tourist who had strolled into an off-limits area while staying at a resort complex in the North, bringing a halt to joint tourism projects. Moon has pledged to resume the tours.
News of the shooting came a day after Moon proposed a new regional initiative including North Korea to the U.N. General Assembly to tackle crises such as the coronavirus and strained ties with Pyongyang.
Moon also reiterated that the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice, should be formally terminated.
On Friday, in a speech for Armed Forces Day, Moon did not mention the incident, or North Korea, but pledged to safeguard the public.