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North Korea Denies Apologizing for Landmine Blast


South Korean presidential security adviser Kim Kwan-jin, right, shakes hands with Hwang Pyong So, North Korea's top political officer for the Korean People's Army, after meeting at the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, Aug. 25, 2015.

North Korea has denied apologizing for a landmine explosion that injured two South Koreans, and says Seoul risks hurting bilateral relations if it implies otherwise.

The North's expression of "regret" over the attack was a central part of a deal reached last week to end a period of especially bitter hostility between the two neighbors.

South Korea has said it views the statement as evidence it finally convinced Pyongyang to take responsibility for the early August incident, after weeks of denying role in the attack.

But in a statement Wednesday, North Korea's National Defense Commission accused Seoul of misinterpreting the statement of regret.

"Nothing is more shallow and cowardly than describing the joint statement agreed by North and South together as a victory for one side," said the statement, published in the Korean Central News Agency.

"Briefly saying 'regret' is nothing more than an expression of 'I feel sorry for what you have been through,'" it added.

Even though North Korea vehemently denies responsibility, there is little question, at least outside Pyongyang, that the North is behind the blast.

North Korea traditionally does not apologize for such cross-border incidents, said Robert Kelly, a professor of international relations at South Korea's Pusan National University.

"[North Korea] needed to find a way to equivocate on that and signal enough of a concession to get South Korea to keep talking but not so much that it actually becomes an issue," he told VOA.

South Korea's Unification Ministry on Wednesday deflected questions about the apology dispute, saying both sides should instead focus on implementing the agreement.

"The fact is, the expression of regret was included. It is not time for us to ride an emotional roller coaster or argue over what's right and wrong about the agreement," said ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee.

Under the terms of the agreement, North Korea expressed regret for the landmine incident. In return, South Korea shut off anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts into the North.

The two sides also agreed to resume reunions for families separated by their 1950s conflict and said they will soon hold talks about improving relations.

The accord also brought an end to military tensions that had rapidly increased following the landmine blast, even to the point of exchanging artillery fire near the border.

But while the deal decreased tensions and may result in a brief period of quiet, it is unlikely to change the trajectory of inter-Korean ties, said Kelly.

"This may signal that North Korea is going to sort of keep its powder dry for six months or a year. But I imagine we'll be having this same conversation in a couple of years," Kelly said.

North Korea would have to make concessions on more substantial issues, such as human rights abuses, its nuclear program, or its bloated military budget, in order to see any real progress in inter-Korean relations, said Kelly.

"And there's just no signal at all coming from the North Koreans that they're really going to change," he said.