Why North Korea’s “Non-Apology” Apology is Significant


In the aftermath of the recent tensions on the Korean peninsula some commentators have contended that South Korea is spinning the idea that North Korea apologized for maiming two South Korea soldiers when it didn’t directly claim responsibility for the act but merely expressed regret.

An article in The Diplomat on this idea states that:

…The Seoul government had simply spun a highly ambiguous, noncommittal statement signed off on by Pyongyang. In doing so, both sides were given a chance to save face.

The North did not accept responsibility for the attack, nor did it use the common Korean verb for “sorry.” Rather, Pyongyang merely expressed “regret” over the incident.

This raises the question, is a statement of regret a statement of admission, as one can regret that something happened for which they had no part?

Context matters in a situation such as this. From a diplomatic perspective, the idea that North Korea would make a clear statement of responsibility was always minimal. Any statement was likely to be fashioned in a way that would allow Seoul to say that North Korea had accepted responsibility while Pyongyang could avoid a public statement of direct responsibility.

It is also questionable whether Seoul would have wanted a direct statement of responsibility rather than something more ambiguous. Aside from the fact that the North likely would not have agreed, it could have made the politics in Seoul more difficult. A clear statement of apology that took responsibility for the landmine incident would have been an acknowledgement of a calculated attack on the South, something for which there would likely be demands for sterner measures against the North.

It is rare for Pyongyang even to express “regret” for hostile acts. In his memoir, former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak revealed that after the sinking of the Cheonan North Korea demanded 500,000 tons of rice as the price for an apology.  North Korea, in fact, never has apologized or expressed regret over the sinking of the Cheonan.

In the current crisis North Korea seems to have gained little other than the removal of the loudspeakers and an end to the crisis, while acceding to one of Park Geun-hye’s key policy proposals – the resumption of family reunions.

In light of the suggestion that it was North Korea that requested the talks to end the crisis and that Pyongyang gained little, it is reasonable to conclude that its statement of regret is most likely is a tacit acknowledgement of its actions and to bring to conclusion a confrontation which had grown more destabilizing than it had planned. Anything more direct was always unlikely.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from josh bomb’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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  1. […] for elements they believe can be the foundation for trust between the two Koreas. Despite getting an understanding with North Korea that contains some of those factors for trust after this latest showdown, there is still a […]


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