KCNA via KNS AFP/Getty Images

An undated picture released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency on Sept. 12 shows Kim Jong Un, center, visiting a flood restoration site in North Hwanghae province.

SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday issued a rare apology for the killing of a South Korean official near the two countries’ disputed border, the South’s presidential office said.

President Moon Jae-in’s office said it received a letter from Kim in which he expressed “immense regret” over the “unexpected and unfortunate incident.”

It is unusual for North Korea to admit wrongdoing or express remorse toward South Korea, its arch rival with which it remains technically at war.

A day earlier, South Korea condemned the North for its treatment of the fisheries official, who disappeared from a patrol boat near the disputed maritime frontier earlier this week in what authorities described as an ill-fated attempt to defect. The 47-year-old was killed by North Korean troops and his body burned, the Defense Ministry said, an act that Seoul labeled an “atrocity.”

It was not clear how the man, who had been wearing a life jacket and was clutching a floating object, ended up in North Korean waters, Seoul’s defense officials said. His colleagues found only his shoes left on the boat.

[North Korean troops executed missing South Korean official, Seoul says]

South Korean officials said North Korean military personnel could have shot the man because of strict orders to prevent the novel coronavirus from entering the country.

The letter — sent from Pyongyang’s United Front Department, which oversees relations with the South — said North Korean military personnel fired 10 shots at the man after he did not respond to their orders and attempted to flee.

The soldiers then approached the scene, where they found the man’s body and the floating object some distance away, the letter said. It added that the soldiers burned the flotation aid as a precaution against the coronavirus.

The killing of the South Korean citizen dealt a blow to President Moon’s push to improve ties with the North. But Pyongyang’s quick expression of remorse appeared to leave room to make amends.

“Kim Jong Un’s supposed apology reduces the risk of escalation between the two Koreas and keeps the Moon government’s hopes for engagement alive,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “Kim’s diplomatic move avoids a potential fight in the short term and preserves the option of reaping longer-term benefits from Seoul.”

[North Korea locks down border city as first possible coronavirus case is announced]

South Korean national security adviser Suh Hoon, who disclosed the content of the letter to reporters, said Pyongyang sent the note in response to Seoul’s demand for an explanation.

Suh also said the leaders of the two Koreas recently exchanged letters about cross-border relations and solutions for the coronavirus crisis.

In a letter dated Sept. 12 that Suh revealed to reporters on Friday, Kim expressed his “sincere intent to share the hardships and sufferings South Korea is experiencing” and “earnest wishes for the health and welfare” of South Koreans.

Coupled with Pyongyang’s apology for the shooting, Seoul’s release of the North Korean letter expressing sympathies over the coronavirus suggested that neither side was willing to risk an extended rupture in relations as a result of the official’s killing.

Suh said the presidential office decided to belatedly share the content of the earlier letter amid heightened interest in exchanges between the two leaders following North Korea’s message Friday.

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