SEOUL, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in spoke publicly for the first time Monday about the killing last week of a fisheries official by North Korean troops, expressing regret and seeking increased cooperation with Pyongyang.
"It is urgently necessary for both North and South to clarify the facts of this incident and to come up with practical measures to prevent a recurrence," Moon told reporters during a meeting with senior aides.
"I hope that from solving this case, we will be able to ignite the spark of dialogue and open the waterway of cooperation."
Moon offered his condolences to the family of the 47-year-old man, an employee of the Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries, who was shot dead by North Korean troops last Tuesday after he floated to the northern side of the maritime boundary between North and South Korea.
The unidentified man had disappeared from an inspection boat patrolling near the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime boundary, a day earlier. South Korean defense officials said last week that he may have been trying to defect.
Moon called the man's death "very regrettable and unfortunate" and said it's created "shock and fury" in the South.
"I am very sorry, as the government must protect the people's safety and security under any circumstances," he said.
Earlier Monday, members of the opposition People Power Party held a rally outside the National Assembly, South Korea's parliament, criticizing Moon's government for not doing enough to protect the fisheries official.
Pyongyang admitted Friday to shooting the man, saying in a formal notice to Seoul that he failed to properly identify himself and attempted to flee as soldiers approached.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered a rare apology for the killing, saying he "feels very sorry that...an unexpected and unfortunate incident happened in our waters, which brought great disappointment to President Moon Jae-in and South Koreans."
The message disputed initial claims that the North Korean soldiers had burned the man's body after shooting him, however -- saying they only burned a flotation device as a COVID-19 precaution.
Moon said Monday Kim's apology had a "special meaning" and showed that he doesn't want the relationship between Seoul and Pyongyang to deteriorate further.
"Chairman Kim Jong Un is also taking this incident seriously, and it can be seen that he hopes that inter-Korean relations will not be destroyed," Moon said.
Both Seoul and Pyongyang have said they are investigating the details of the killing and are searching for the man's body. North Korean state media have warned the South not to cross the border to conduct the search, saying "it may lead to another awful incident."
"[W]e can never overlook any intrusion into our territorial waters and we seriously warn the [S]outh side against it," the statement in the Korean Central News Agency said.
The South Korean presidential office called on Pyongyang Sunday to reopen military communications channels, which were severed in June. Moon repeated the call Monday, saying it would help prevent future incidents.
"If the conversation is disconnected, there is no way to solve the problem, and if we do not cooperate with each other, it is difficult to establish effective measures to prevent a recurrence," he said.
Moon, who has made peace and increased cooperation with North Korea one of the main goals of his administration, also held out hope that the man's death would offer an opportunity to thaw what's become a frozen relationship.
"I hope that this tragic incident...will turn into an opportunity for dialogue and cooperation and to advance inter-Korean relations."