Seoul, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent an apology on Friday over thenear the rivals' disputed sea boundary, saying he was "very sorry" about the incident he called unexpected and unfortunate, according to South Korean officials.
It would be unprecedented for a North Korean leader to explicitly apologize to South Korea on any issue, and neither the North's government nor its state-run media immediately confirmed that any message of apology had been sent to Seoul.
Kim's message, purportedly sent directly to the South Korean president's office, could help de-escalate tensions by easing anti-North sentiments in South Korea over the man's death, 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.
On Thursday, South Korea 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 North Korea for what they called an "atrocious act" and pressed it to punish those responsible.
According to the South Korean government, the message received from North Korea on Monday said troops first fired blanks after the man found in the North's waters refused to answer, other than saying he was from South Korea a couple 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 Wednesday that North Korea likely killed the man because of elevated anti-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.
The North Korean message was sent from the United Front Department of the ruling Workers' Party, a top North Korean body in charge of relations with South Korea.
The 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 without 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."
Before Kim's purported 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 accused the government of 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."
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.