What to make of a North Korean apology

In a country whose leaders are portrayed as infallible, a recent apology by a top official may help soften coming talks with the US and South Korea.

Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, talks to members of a South Korean artistic group, including popular girl band Red Velvet, after their performance in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 1. Kim clapped his hands as he, along with his wife and hundreds of other citizens, watched a rare performance Sunday by South Korean pop stars visiting Pyongyang, highlighting the thawing ties between the rivals after years of heightened tensions over the North's nuclear program. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government.

Sunlight can shine through the smallest crack. That may be the best way to judge a very rare apology from a high-ranking official in North Korea – who once was its chief of spies – just before negotiations with South Korea and the United States over the North’s nuclear program.

On April 1, Kim Yong-chol, head of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s United Front Department, offered an apology to South Korean journalists after they were excluded from a concert where the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was watching a performance of musicians from the South.

“On behalf of the North’s authorities, I offer an apology and ask for your understanding for the wrong committed,” he said, with all apparent sincerity. He blamed uninformed bodyguards for the error.

In most countries, such a mea culpa would not be news. But North Korea is a place whose leaders are glorified and portrayed as infallible. Their ideology is supposedly on the correct path of history. The people are taught their nation is the greatest on earth, an envy of the world. Those who oppose North Korea’s actions are mocked with stinging adjectives, not openings for compromise.

So rare indeed is a humble admission by a prominent person in Pyongyang. Even though the apology was over a minor incident, it is worth recalling how small gestures have helped end conflicts in world trouble spots. In many difficult talks between adversaries, negotiators stepped outside the rational self-interest of a nation or group. They laid anger and revenge aside and then offered apologies that hint at self-reflection.

To end Colombia’s long civil war, for example, leaders of a rebel Marxist group made several emotional apologies to victims, such as the families of kidnapped victims and villagers who suffered a massacre. Both the government and the rebels have recognized their respective atrocities against civilians. The effect has been profound, helping to cement a peace deal in 2016.

Apologies, either for small mistakes or large, suggest a willingness to change one’s behavior. Rather than appear as weakness, they hint at an alternative type of power. They indicate a commitment to interdependence and a respect for a code of moral conduct. They help restore the dignity of victims, which could result in forgiveness. They build a relationship of trust that allows for compromises on tough decisions in a negotiation.

After a quarter century of failed talks with North Korea, the US and its partners may need to probe if the regime of Kim Jong-un now has a change of attitude, not only about its nuclear weapons but its aggressive and violent behavior toward South Korea.

The power of apology could be the missing link in the North Korean saga. Even if offered over a minor mistake, apologies help break down perceptions of “the other.” When each side looks in the mirror first to see what they can change in themselves, it is a victory over fear, an invitation for peace, and a call for healing.

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