Sorry, Not Sorry: Why North Korean Apologies Aren't Worth Much

October 1, 2020 Topic: Secuity Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: North KoreaSouth KoreaChinaKorean WarDMZ

Sorry, Not Sorry: Why North Korean Apologies Aren't Worth Much

The bottom line is that the awful Kim is not actually sorry, at least not if “sorry” means “I won’t do this again.”

Last week, a South Korean government worker crossed the North-South maritime border, where he was captured and then shot by Northern soldiers, who also burned his body in what they claim was a COVID-19 preventative measure. South Korean and American condemnations predictably followed soon after. And then Pyongyang did something unexpected: apologize. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un sent a letter to the Blue House (Korea’s White House) saying he was “sorry” for the incident that “clearly negatively impact[ed] inter-Korean relation.”

Murder and burning isn’t out of the norm for a country that executes those who have fallen foul of Dear Respected (Kim Jong Un’s preferred sobriquet) with a rocket-propelled grenade to the gut, but “sorry” certainly is. With news headlines abuzz with this “rare apology,” just remember… North Korea isn’t sorry.

How rare is a statement of regret from the Hermit Kingdom? Pretty rare, it turns out. Despite years of aggression from the North and countless missile tests, Pyongyang has only managed to eke out a few sorries. Last August, President Trump stated that Kim gave a “small apology” for short-range missile tests it conducted that summer. In 2018, senior North Korean diplomat Kim Yong Chol apologized to South Korean journalists visiting the country when they were blocked from watching the K-pop concert they had been sent to cover. In 2015, North Korea expressed “regret” after two South Korean soldiers were wounded in a land mine incident inside the Demilitarized Zone. But even then, North Korea was quick to clarify that it did not, in fact, actually mean to apologize, and that the South Korean side had misconstrued its statement.

(Even this sorry in 2020 may not be the real thing: Some doubt that Kim sent the apology letter at all, suspecting an elaborate South Korean fraud.)

Obviously, sorry is indeed the hardest word for Pyongyang, so what’s the calculus behind the rare apology? In 2018, it was in anticipation of upcoming talks between the US and South Korea over its nuclear program. In 2019, it was the hope for another summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump. This time, North Korea’s comments come just after South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s speech at the United Nations calling for a formal end to the Korean War, an item that ranks at the top of North Korea’s wish list. In short, Kim wants something.

Dear Respected’s letter is vintage North Korea, a classic from the regime’s playbook. But the bottom line is that the awful Kim is not actually sorry, at least not if “sorry” means “I won’t do this again.” It’s only a matter of time until Pyongyang’s next assault on a target of the dictator’s choosing. Truth be told, the only real item of note is how ably he has trained his South Korean admirers to lower their standards, allowing a murder and apology to mark a “special significance” in North-South relations.

This article first appeared at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image: Reuters.