People watch television news showing file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kim apologized on September 25 over the killing of a South Korean at sea. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP

In a highly unusual turn of events, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un apologized to South Korea for the killing of a South Korean civilian that was made public on Thursday.

Kim, in a message apparently sent directly to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, said he was “very sorry” for the incident. Calling it “regrettable” and “unsavory,” the message said that “what should not happen has occurred.”

According to South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense on Thursday, a 47-year-old fisheries official went missing from a South Korean vessel near the North Korean coast on Monday.

On Tuesday, while floating in the Yellow Sea, he was apparently intercepted by seaborne North Korean troops, shot dead and his body burned.

Multiple indicators suggest the man had tried to defect to North Korea – a crime in South Korea. Even so, the ministry demanded an explanation from the North for what it called a “brutal” incident.

The North’s explanation did not offer a substantively different version of events from the South’s. According to its message, the South Korean, on a floatation device of some kind, entered its waters without authorization and did not respond to verbal entreaties from North Korean troops on a boat.

When the North Koreans fired warning shots, the man attempted to flee, the North’s message continued. As a result, the North Korean troops switched to live fire. Their target disappeared, leaving only blood. In accordance with Covid-19 regulations, the troops burned his float, the message said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in an April 25, 2019 file photo. Photo: AFP Forum via Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi

The conciliatory message and apology may have been designed to soften feelings in South Korea that hardened suddenly yesterday.

The hideous details of the unnamed official’s demise sent tremors through South Korea, a nation well-immunized to, and even blase about, North Korean provocations.

It also drew shocked responses from the presidential Blue House and the Ministry of Unification. The two government bodies have kept alive hopes of cross-border engagement, hopes which many critics consider forlorn.

Before Kim’s message was received, President Moon Jae-in spent his morning attending an Armed Forces Day celebratory event, complete with a long demonstration by special forces troops that included a parachute drop, unarmed combat and knife-fighting displays.

“The shooting incident was turning South Korean public opinion against offering peace and humanitarian assistance to Pyongyang,” Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul told Asia Times.

“Kim’s diplomatic move avoids a potential fight in the short-term and preserves the option of reaping longer-term benefits from Seoul,” he said.  

Kim’s message was sent from the United Front Department, a party body that is the opposite number of Seoul’s Ministry of Unification. The South Korean presidential office also revealed Friday that Kim had sent a goodwill letter to President Moon, dated September 12.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in during more convivial times. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS

Speaking before the National Assembly Friday, Unification Minister Lee In-young, called the apology very exceptional. While North Korean apologies for its nefarious activities are rare, they do happen.

Regime founder Kim Il Sung apologized to a South Korean envoy for his dispatch of a commando unit to assassinate the South Korean president in 1968.

And in 2002, second-generation leader Kim Jong Il apologized to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents.

It is unclear via what channel or hotline the messages were sent. A Blue House official told Asia Times that is customary never to reveal the communication channels used between the North and South Korean leaderships.

Experts were taken aback at the development.

“I am pretty surprised, this was quite fast,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea watcher at Seoul’s Asan Institute. “This apology demonstrates that the state of relations is not as bad as it looks.”

Inter-Korean relations have been frigid for most of the year. North Korea, frustrated at the lack of movement in its relations with the outside world, particularly UN sanctions that are hemming in its economy and preventing economic engagement with South Korea, has blamed both Washington and Seoul.

It has lashed out at the South in a range of media messages and in June, blew up the only inter-Korean liaison office.

Kim’s response to Tuesday’s killing may suggest that he is seeking to portray himself as a statesman. Meanwhile, his sister Yo Jong, whose profile in the Party has risen this year, has been taking on a more hawkish role.

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. Photo: AFP

Her name has been on hardline state media statements this year, and she apparently ordered the demolition of the inter-Korean office. Easley noted that Kim had intervened to de-escalate tensions after his sister’s initiative.

“Clearly it confirms a pattern,” in the public-facing roles being adopted by brother and sister, Go said.

Their “good cop, bad cop” routine may emerge further as Pyongyang plots its response to the upcoming US presidential election and a possible reset of Washington relations.

Still, Go warned against seeing Kim’s message as being a predicator of any new, pro-Seoul pivot by Pyongyang.

“I think what North Korea wants to do is maintain the status quo, they don’t want South Korea to be a source of trouble right now,” he said.

“North Korea’s attention is very much focused on making sure Covid-19 does not get out of control and keeping the economy afloat while they focus on the US with a wait-and-see posture.”