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(4th LD) North Korea apologizes for South Korean deaths from dam discharge: Seoul official

All Headlines 15:54 October 14, 2009

(ATTN: UPDATES with end of talks, reaction by presidential office, N.K. paper report, details, minor edits)
By Kim Hyun

SEOUL, Oct. 14 (Yonhap) -- North Korea expressed "regrets" over the deaths of six South Koreans caused by its abrupt discharge of dam water last month, an expression Seoul takes as a de-facto apology, a senior official here said Wednesday.

The remarks came during hour-and-a-half long working-level talks the Koreas held in Kaesong, a town just north of their shared border, to discuss the incident.

The North also expressed "deep condolences" to the victims' families, the official from the Unification Ministry said at a background briefing.

"Literally speaking, the North expressed regrets and condolences," the official said, "But in the general context, we think it's an apology by North Korea with regard to this incident."

The North's softened position helped remove one of the major roadblocks to inter-Korean relations as momentum for dialogue has built in recent weeks after a long stalemate.

The presidential office Cheong Wa Dae welcomed the North's remarks as a "considerably positive signal." The expressions "showed its willingness to improve relations with us," Park Sun-kyoo, spokesman for President Lee Myung-bak, said in a briefing.

The flood victims were camping or fishing along the mouth of the Imjin River when North Korea opened its Hwanggam Dam at the upstream without notice before dawn, causing a flash flood that swept them away. The body of a North Korean boy, who apparently also died from the flood, drifted down along the river and was later returned to the North.

While there have been unannounced dam discharges almost every year, this year's was the first to claim human lives.

North Korea sent messages saying it had to "urgently" discharge the water after heavy downpours, but South Korea demanded a thorough explanation and an official apology. Seoul also sought at the talks to creat a warning call system mandatory for the North.

In Wednesday's talks, North Korea reiterated that the discharge was not intentional.

"The North explained the relevant institution had no other choice but to urgently unleash the dam water to prevent bigger damage," the ministry official said.

Further details would not be available until Seoul's three-member delegation returns from the talks later in the day, the official said. Seoul did not allow reporters to accompany its delegation to cover the meeting.

Wednesday's dialogue opened despite a lingering dispute on the North's nuclear and missile programs. The North test-fired five short-range missiles on Monday, just hours after Seoul proposed the talks.

Both Seoul and Washington reacted calmly to the tests and asserted that diplomacy with the North would continue.

In a related dispatch on Wednesday, the North's largest newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, called for better inter-Korean relations.

"It is the unwavering will of our republic to proactively realize reconciliation, unity, cooperation and exchanges according to the joint declarations" of the past inter-Korean summits, the paper of the Workers' Party said in a commentary.

The Koreas will meet again on Friday to continue reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. The talks will draw keen attention as to whether Seoul will decide to resume rice aid to the North in return for the humanitarian event.

Pyongyang agreed to the latest round of reunions, held late September, after cutting them off for nearly two years amid fraying ties with the Lee administration.


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