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Kim Jong Un Apologizes For Shooting Death Of South Korean Official

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he is sorry for the shooting death of a South Korean man near the two countries' maritime border this week. Kim's remark seems to have kept tensions between the states under control for now. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: North Korea's ruling Workers' Party sent Seoul a notice about its probe into the shooting death of a South Korean fisheries official in North Korean waters on Tuesday. The notice said that the North soldiers had fired on the man after he ignored questions and appeared to be trying to escape. After firing, the troops looked for the man's body but found only blood in the water. South Korean National Security Office Director Suh Hoon read the notice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUH HOON: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "Our soldiers concluded that the intruder had been killed," he said, "and burned the buoy he was on in the water in compliance with quarantine protocols." The South suspected that the North had shot the man in order to keep the coronavirus out of their country and then burned the man's body. The notice also contained Kim's message.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOON: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "Chairman Kim Jong Un said to convey that he feels deeply sorry," he said, "for giving President Moon Jae-in and the people of South Korea a huge sense of disappointment due to the unintended, unfortunate incident in our waters." Go Myong-hyun is a North Korea expert at the Asan Institute, a Seoul-based think tank. He says that Seoul appears to be heaving a sigh of relief following Kim Jong Un's statement.

GO MYUNG-HUN: The South Korean government was very afraid that this could really mark the end of any effort to engage in dialogue with North Korea.

KUHN: Seoul is committed to that dialogue, but it can't proceed if the North is shooting its citizens. As for Kim Jong Un, Go says he doesn't want to burn his bridges just yet while he waits to see the outcome of the U.S. elections in November.

GO: Based on that, North Korea will decide whether to escalate or de-escalate. So I think that they are, essentially, in a holding pattern.

KUHN: Go says if there is to be another round of diplomacy with Washington, an overture to Seoul would be a good way to start. If not, he says, then Pyongyang may resort, once again, to military provocations. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHELIAN'S "INTRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.