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Kim Jong Un issues rare apology to South Korea over death of official

Arata Yamamoto contributed.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un issued a rare apology on Friday over the killing of a South Korean official who was apparently trying to defect near the rivals' disputed sea boundary.

"Comrade Chairman Kim Jong Un asked to convey the message that he is very sorry about creating a huge disappointment to our southern compatriots and President Moon Jae-In because of this unfortunate incident that happened in our waters," a letter sent to South Korea's presidential Blue House said.

It was sent by the Unification Division, the North Korean body in charge of relations with its southern neighbor.

It is extremely unusual for a North Korean leader to apologize on any issue.

But it came after South Korea's Defense Ministry said Thursday that the North had shot and burned the body of a South Korean official who disappeared from a government boat earlier in the week.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in called the incident "shocking" and "very regretful," as it fueled anti-North sentiment and sparked a public backlash.

The North Korean letter admitted that after initially firing blanks its military had shot "some ten rounds" of gunfire into the unidentified "intruder," as he did not reveal his identity and appeared to flee.

It added that for safety reasons due to the coronavirus pandemic, they had burnt the floating device he washed up on and did not find his body.

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The missive did, however, chide Seoul for using "blasphemous and confrontational words" to condemn the North over the incident, before asking for an explanation of the event. But nonetheless said North Korea would take steps to prevent trust between the countries from collapsing.

"Our leadership stressed that we stay more alert and be more aware so that the mutual trust and respect built between North Korea and South Korea is not destroyed by this regrettable incident," the letter said.

South Korea's government ships are seen near Yeonpyeong island, South Korea, on Friday.Baek Seung-ryul / AP

The South Korean coast guard said earlier on Friday that their ships were searching the waters near the boundary in case the official's body drifts back. They said they were checking the 47-year-old man's cellphone records, bank accounts and insurance details to find out more about his disappearance, which remains unexplained.

The western sea boundary is where several bloody inter-Korean naval skirmishes and deadly attacks have occurred in past years.

Earlier this summer, tensions escalated between the two countries, as Pyongyang cut off communication hotlines with the South and theatrically demolished an inter-Korean liaison office set-up to foster better ties between the two.

North Korea also lashed out at the South and North Koreans defectors living there for propaganda leaflets and balloons that were parachuted into the North.

But more recently, Moon and Kim exchanged letters to share hopes to rebuild relations after tackling the coronavirus, South Korean officials said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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