North Korea offers regrets for sea battle

Communist nation avoids full apology but pledges to restart talks with South

July 26, 2002|By Mark Magnier | Mark Magnier,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TOKYO - North Korea expressed regret yesterday for a naval battle last month that killed five South Korean sailors and offered to renew working-level talks aimed at improving relations between the wary neighbors.

Pyongyang stopped short of accepting blame for the clash, however, which occurred in seafood-rich waters along the disputed Yellow Sea boundary. The fight prompted Washington to withdraw its offer for high-level meetings with the North.

"We regret the accidental armed clash which happened a short while ago, and we believe that both North and South must make joint efforts to prevent such an incident from re-occurring," North Korean Cabinet official Kim Ryong Sung told South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se Hyun in a telephone conversation, according to officials in the South.

The South Korean government, which had demanded a full apology and prosecution of the North Korean sailors responsible, quickly embraced the statement as "highly significant."

"We view North Korea's expression of regret and its reference to efforts at preventing further incidents as a de facto apology," the Unification Ministry said in a statement.

South Korean public opinion has hardened against the North, and the ruling party faces two key elections before the end of the year. It is eager to show that its so-called sunshine policy of engaging the North is not a failure.

This is only the third time North Korea has expressed regret for an incident since the Korean peninsula was divided in 1945. The two other times were in 1976, when its troops killed two U.S. soldiers with axes at the village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone, and in 1996 when one of its submarines ran aground off South Korea's east coast, prompting a firefight that killed five South Koreans.

It remains to be seen how well the half-apology will be received beyond the Korean peninsula.

"It's exactly what needed to be done to put the incident behind them on the inter-Korean side," said Scott Snyder, Seoul representative of the Asia Foundation, an organization based in San Francisco that studies Asia-U.S. relations. "Now the question is whether this can open the way for a resumption of U.S.-North Korea meetings."

Officials from Washington and Pyongyang are scheduled to attend a Southeast Asian regional forum starting Wednesday in Brunei, which provides an opportunity for a meeting. Japanese media reported yesterday that Japan and North Korea plan to meet in Brunei for the first time in two years.

Mark Magnier writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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