North Korea, in positive sign for dialogue, regrets deadly flood

Though North Korea did not apologize for the flood that killed South Koreans, its expression of regret is seen as a good sign on the path toward dialogue.

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North Korea said Wednesday it regretted the deadly flood caused by the sudden release of water from a dam on the border last month, another positive sign from the North on a road toward dialogue littered with mixed signals.

The announcement, made during talks on flood control with South Korean officials, came as US officials visiting China said the US and Beijing were cooperating well in dealing with North Korea.

South Korea had demanded an apology and explanation for the Sept. 6 flash flood on the Imjin River that killed six South Koreans, caused when the North released millions of tons of water from the Hwanggang Dam north of the border without warning. The sudden flood swept away South Koreans who were camping or fishing downstream.

The Korea Herald reports the North expressed regret for the flood Wednesday and paid condolences to the victims' families, explaining officials had opened the dam's gates because of an emergency, "to prevent a bigger catastrophe."

South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reports the South is accepting the expression of regret as a "de-facto apology."

"Literally speaking, the North expressed regrets and condolences," the official [from South Korea's Unification Ministry] said, "But in the general context, we think it's an apology by North Korea with regard to this incident."
The apology was another good sign after a month of potentially positive indications that the North will return to international negotiations on its nuclear program. But the international community is treading cautiously amid the mixed signals the North continues to send.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il said last week the North would return to multilateral talks if it had successful bilateral negotiations with the US, The Christian Science Monitor reported. North Korea withdrew from the six-party talks (with the US, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan) in April, saying it would never return, and completed its second nuclear test in May.

But Monday, less than a week after expressing an apparent desire to improve US-North Korea relations, the North test-fired five short-range missiles. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was apparently unfazed, saying the US position was "unaffected" by the action.

On a visit to Beijing Wednesday, the US assistant secretary of state for Asian and Near Eastern affairs said the US and China were acting with extraordinary coordination in dealing with North Korea. Kurt Campbell said Chinese officials told North Korea, during last week's visit, than any bilateral talks with the US "could only come under the framework" of the multilateral negotiations, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Campbell […] reiterated that separate talks with Pyongyang aren't acceptable to Washington. But he sketched out what appears to be a possible compromise, where the US and North Korea hold bilateral talks first, but under the rubric of the six-party dialogue.
"The Chinese were very clear with the North Koreans," Mr. Campbell told reporters. "They conveyed that we would be prepared for an initial interaction between the United States and North Korea that would lead rapidly to a six-party resumption of talks." He said that Chinese officials he met with this week "indicated that they think they heard from North Korea that they are prepared to accept that framework. But we will have to test that and explore that and see if that is indeed the case."
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