North Korea offered a rare apology Wednesday for unleashing dam water causing floods downstream blamed for six South Korean deaths and promised to alert Seoul to such measures in the future, an official said.
The release of dam water into the Imjin River last month without advance notice triggered floods that swept away six South Koreans who were camping and fishing. Seoul demanded an apology, but Pyongyang said at the time only that it "urgently" had to release the water because the dam's level was too high and that it would warn Seoul of similar releases in the future.
At 80-minute talks Wednesday suggested by South Korea and convened in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, the North expressed its regret, Unification Ministry spokesman Lee Jong-joo said. The North also said it had to discharge the waters to avoid a bigger catastrophe.
"It was regrettable that unintended human casualties occurred," the North Korean chief delegate told South Korean officials, Lee said.
The North also offered condolences to the bereaved South Korean families, Lee said.
The sides held a 15-minute session in the afternoon to wrap up Wednesday's talks.
'Fairly positive signal'
Chief South Korean delegate Kim Nam-shik told reporters later in the day that the North again assured it would notify Seoul of similar releases and that the two sides agreed to meet again at an early date to discuss setting up a flood warning system.
Presidential spokesman Park Sun-kyoo welcomed the North's comments, saying they sent a "fairly positive signal" that it wants to improve relations with the South.
The discussions Wednesday took place amid reports that the North Korea may be preparing to test-fire more missiles following a barrage of missile launches off its east coast on Monday — the regime's first since early July.
The latest launches appeared to be meant to improve the accuracy of North Korea's missiles, a senior South Korean presidential official told reporters. He asked not to be identified because of the issue's sensitivity.
South Korea has detected indications that North Korea is also preparing to fire short-range missiles off its west coast, Dong-a Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unidentified military official. The newspaper said the North has announced a no-sail zone in areas off the country's east and west coasts for Oct. 10-20 — an apparent signal the country could carry out more missile tests.
The Yonhap news agency carried a similar report.
South Korea's Defense Ministry declined to comment on the intelligence issue.
Six-nation talks stalled
North Korea has recently reached out to the U.S. and South Korea following months of tension over its nuclear and missile tests earlier this year. Leader Kim Jong Il told visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao last week that his government might return to stalled six-nation negotiations on its nuclear program depending on the outcome of direct talks it seeks with the U.S.
In Beijing, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said Wednesday that Washington will not meet directly with North Korea until Pyongyang commits to rejoining six-nation disarmament talks and abides by commitments to dismantle its nuclear programs.
"The Chinese indicated that they think they heard from North Korea that they are prepared to accept that framework. But again, we will have to test that, explore that and see if that is indeed the case," he said. Campbell was in Beijing for talks likely aimed at President Barack Obama's visit next month.
Former President George W. Bush expressed confidence Wednesday that the North Korean nuclear issue can be resolved through diplomacy, but he cautioned Kim is likely to continue to prove a formidable negotiator who "will no doubt test the system, no doubt try to find weaknesses."
Bush told the World Knowledge Forum, an annual conference sponsored by a South Korean business newspaper, that the best way to bring peace to the Korean peninsula is through the six-nation talks.
The disarmament talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan were last held in Beijing in December.
The 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, which means the two Koreas are still technically at war.