October 15, 2009 12:58
North Korea expressed "regret" and "deep condolences" on Wednesday for the death of six South Koreans on Sept. 6 after it discharged 40 million tons of water from the Hwang River Dam into the Imjin River without warning. The statement came in working-level talks between the two Koreas in Kaesong. "Literally speaking, the North expressed regret and condolences," a Unification Ministry official said. "But in the general context, we think it's an apology."
It is not often that North Korea expresses even "regret" about something it has done. According to South Korean government records, North Korea caused property damage and loss of South Korean lives almost every year since the end of the Korean War in 1953, but never once issued an apology. It expressed "regret" five times and said its actions were "unfortunate" or "inappropriate" once each.
In January 1968, an armed group of North Korean guerrillas attempted to murder president Park Chung-hee at Cheong Wa Dae, but were thwarted by South Korean troops. Later, when South Korea's intelligence chief Lee Hoo-rak traveled secretly to Pyongyang, former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung said it was an "unfortunate" incident and that he and his party had nothing to do with it. It was an excuse. The expression of regret that came around a month after the Imjin River incident was the sixth comment of that type North Korea made in 60 years.
North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper demanded the same day, "The atmosphere of cooperation and exchange must continue, by resuming tours to Kaesong and Mt. Kumgang and revitalizing the Kaesong Industrial Complex." Seoul is considering the resumption of the tours, but before that can happen, North Korea must issue an official apology for the fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist in July last year and come up with measures to prevent such incidents from happening again. This is the least the North can do so that tourists will not have to fear for their lives.
The prevailing view is that North Korea's conciliatory gesture was motivated by a severe food shortage compounded by economic hardships due to UN sanctions. Kim Ki-nam, the secretary of the Central Committee of the North Korean Workers' Party, visited Seoul in August and told President Lee Myung-bak that it was the will of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to improve inter-Korean relations. Yet North Korea launched five missiles from its eastern coast on Monday. Such acts do not inspire confidence.
North Korea's behavior shows that it will resort to brinkmanship any time if it does not get what it wants during talks with South Korea. The South should prepare for a long and difficult time until true improvement in inter-Korean relations can be achieved. It needs to set clear principles and goals for inter-Korean dialogue to clarify exactly when to be patient and when to seek an explanation and apology from North Korea.
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