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S. Korea Offers Apology to North

President's remarks on a recent protest assailing Kim Jong Il draw fire at home.

August 20, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — In a part of the world where diplomacy usually means never saying you're sorry, South Korea's president publicly apologized to North Korea on Tuesday for a rally at which anti-communists burned a North Korean flag and an effigy of leader Kim Jong Il.

The nationally televised statement by Roh Moo Hyun paved the way for North Korea to participate in the Universiade, an 11-day student athletic tournament taking place in the South Korean city of Taegu. Within hours of Roh's statement, North Korea reversed its decision to boycott the games.

However, Roh's political opponents accused him of capitulating to North Korea and demanded that he apologize for the apology.

"President Roh Surrenders to the Threat of the Enemy!" screamed one headline in the Independent newspaper, a conservative online publication, within hours of the apology.

Conservatives were galled that the apology seemed more heartfelt than the pro forma regrets about frequent incidents in which South Korean students burn U.S. flags. Others said the government shouldn't apologize for anything that takes place at a peaceful demonstration.

"Why should President Roh apologize for the democratic right of citizens to freely express their opinion?" asked Seo Si Joo, an organizer of the rally Friday that offended the North Koreans. Seo said the demonstrators were protesting a regime that lets its people starve and threatens the world with nuclear weapons.

The rally took place on the Aug. 15 holiday celebrating Korea's liberation from Japanese occupation at the end of World War II. About 7,000 people, most of them Korean War veterans or members of church groups, rallied in front of Seoul City Hall.

At the same time, about 10,000 students held a rival demonstration a few blocks away to protest the Bush administration's tough stance against North Korea in the ongoing nuclear crisis.

On Sunday, North Korea abruptly announced that the arrival of its athletes in Taegu would be delayed because of mechanical problems with two airplanes. But it later put out a statement demanding an apology and complaining that South Korea is a "dangerous place where compatriots do harm to their brothers' safety and dignity."

Kim Jong Il is revered as a demigod in North Korea, and any affront, even something as small and inadvertent as spilling tea on a newspaper photograph of the leader, is harshly punished.

The withdrawal of the delegation was a psychological blow to South Korea, which saw the participation of the North as the crowning achievement of the games. The event draws about 11,000 athletes from more than 170 countries.

In its first appearance in any international tournament, North Korea sent a delegation -- not only athletes but also the wildly popular North Korean cheerleaders -- last fall to Pusan, South Korea, for the Asian Games.

Roh did not utter the words "I'm sorry" Monday but rather read a statement that was considered tantamount to an apology.

"The government needs to express regret for desecrating a foreign country's flag," Roh said. "This kind of incident should not happen again."

Roh appeared to contradict his own national security advisor, Ra Jong Yil, who had said Monday that "demonstrators are accustomed to burning symbols during demonstrations, including the U.S. flag. It's not appropriate for the government to apologize for rallies."

North and South Korea are technically still in a state of war, as the Korean conflict ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

But relations have warmed in recent years. Roh, in office just six months, has enthusiastically embraced the Nobel Peace Prize-winning "sunshine policy" of his predecessor, Kim Dae Jung.

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