North Korea is known for a lot of things, but apologizing is not one of them. So it was noteworthy when a hard-line North Korean general offered an apology yesterday (April 2) to South Korean reporters, of all people, visiting Pyongyang.
The journalists were in town to cover the K-pop performances attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in recent days. While they had been invited to watch some of South Korea’s top entertainers sing and dance, their minders were overruled by Kim’s bodyguards, who blocked them from entering the theater hosting the performances.
That wasn’t particularly surprising. What was surprising: The high-ranking Kim Yong-chol, a vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, apologized to the reporters in person at their hotel in Pyongyang. This is the same general suspected of masterminding two attacks on South Korea in 2010: the sinking of a warship and the shelling of an island, leading to the deaths of nearly 50 sailors and a handful of soldiers and civilians, respectively.
The general, who also led the North’s delegation to the recent Winter Olympics hosted by South Korea, explained that the blocked entry was not intentional, noting there’d been insufficient cooperation between the concert organizers and the supreme leader’s security staff. “It was wrong to hinder the free media coverage and filming,” he said.
Apologies from North Korea, where the Kim regime rules with an iron fist and the media is anything but free, are extremely rare. In August 2015, Pyongyang expressed “regret” over, but did not explicitly apologize for, a land-mine attack that maimed two South Korean staff sergeants. According to the South’s defense ministry, North Korean soldiers snuck into the South’s side of the Demilitarized Zone, the heavily fortified border area between the two nations, and planted the explosives near guard posts.
As for the attack on the warship five years earlier, North Korea denied being involved, despite an international investigation concluding the vessel was destroyed by a torpedo from a North Korean submarine. Indeed Pyongyang threatened “all-out war” if the South attempted to punish it for the attack.
Such responses have long been par for course, even as Pyongyang been quick to demand apologies from others. In 2014 it insisted the US apologize over The Interview, a Hollywood comedy that it deemed disrespectful of the supreme leader. In 2016 it demanded the South not only apologize for military drills involving a mocked-up structure similar to Kim’s home, but publicly execute the officials behind it.
In light of its track record, any apology—about anything—from North Korea is worth noting. More broadly, the admission of fault comes amid a diplomatic blitz conducted by the North this year, after it claimed in late November it had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force,” having shown its missiles can reach anywhere in the US.
An inter-Korean summit will be held later this month—only the third ever between the two nations, which are technically still at war. The North has also agreed in principle to a summit with the US, planned for sometime next month, and Kim has indicated he’s “committed to denuclearization,” though it’s still unclear whether he means actual denuclearization.
Either way, his regime likely aims to wring economic and political concessions out of the international community in the near future. To that end, a little diplomacy can’t hurt.