NKorea makes rare apology with SK

SEOUL: In a rare move, North Korea Wednesday expressed regret to South Korea for the death of six people swept away in a cross-border flood -- its latest apparent move to mend ties after months of hostility.

Seoul said the comments came during talks between the two sides about flood-control measures.

Pyongyang's decision to attend the talks, as well as a separate meeting planned for Friday, has raised hopes of better relations despite its short-range missile tests on Monday.

In an incident which stirred anger in the South, the North on September 6 released millions of tonnes of water from a dam across the Imjin River, drowning the South Koreans camping or fishing downstream.

The North had said a sudden surge in the dam water level prompted an emergency release, but the South called for an apology and measures to prevent a recurrence.

"Literally speaking, the North expressed regrets and condolences," an official from Seoul's unification ministry told Yonhap news agency during the talks in the town of Kaesong just north of the heavily fortified border.

"But in the general context, we think it's an apology by North Korea with regard to this incident."

The North expressed "deep condolences" to families of the six victims, the official said on condition of anonymity, and reiterated it was forced to open the dam floodgates urgently. The talks were continuing Wednesday afternoon.

There have been unannounced dam discharges by the North almost every year, but this year's was the first to claim lives.

The body of a North Korean boy, who apparently was also a victim, drifted south in the river and was later returned to the North.

The two nations have remained technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict ended only in an armistice, and the hardline communist state rarely expresses regret for its actions.

When a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean housewife at a resort in the North in July last year, Pyongyang blamed Seoul for the incident and demanded an apology. The woman had strayed into a military zone.

On Monday the North test-fired five missiles, the first launches in more than three months, but the unification ministry had said talks would not be affected.

For more than a year Pyongyang was bitterly hostile to the South's conservative government, which scrapped a "sunshine" aid and engagement policy with its impoverished neighbour.

Relations were also strained by the North's nuclear and missile tests in the spring, but it began making peace overtures in August.

In recent weeks it has freed five South Korean detainees, eased curbs on the operations of a joint industrial estate, sent envoys for talks with President Lee Myung-Bak and given the go-ahead for a family reunion programme.

Hundreds of relatives separated since the war held tearful brief reunions two weeks ago, the first such event in two years.

The South, in talks Friday at Kaesong, will seek to make the reunions a regular event because thousands of people are dying of old age before they get a chance to meet loved ones on the other side of the border.